Category Archives: Beary Artist

Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty

In 1882, Alexander III appointed Ivan Vsevolozhsky to the directorship of the Imperial Theaters in Russia.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835–1909) in traditional costume, 1903

A cultivated aristocrat and ardent Francophile, intelligent and with a keen sense of humor, Ivan Vsevolozhsky had worked at the Russian consulate in The Hague and in Paris and his tastes were distinctly European. His small office in the Winter Palace was crammed with paintings and sculptures from French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch masters. “Everything around Vsevolozhsky,” the Ballets Russes artist Alexander Benois later recalled, “breathed that high-born taste, that parfait goût” of the French 18th century. Even his bows “were marked by a special elegance and even complexity,” and to him “dance was not something frivolous or absurd” but a necessary and supremely cultivated art.

Yet Vsevolozhsky was also a strong advocate of Russian art. He pried the ballet master Marius Petipa away from Minkus and the predictable rhythms of made-to-order ballet music and pushed him toward the far more complex and Russian voices of Tchaikovsky and (later) Alexander Glazunov. Tchaikovsky, whose prominence in Russian musical life was by then well established, shared Vsevolozhsky’s interest in ballet and was a willing collaborator. When he was a child his mother had taken him to see Giselle with Carlotta Grisi in the title role, and as a young man he had attended the theater frequently. His brother, Modest, later recalled how Tchaikovsky enjoyed demonstrating the proper balletic form, teasing Modest by likening him to the undistinguished Russian ballerina Savrenskaya—and himself to the elegant Amalia Ferraris “because of the fluidity and classicism of his movements.”

Marius Petipa (1818-1910)

In 1888 Vsevolozhsky proposed a new ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. He wrote to Tchaikovsky: “I thought I would write a libretto to Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant [The Sleeping Beauty]. I want to do the mise-en-scène in Louis XIV style,” and he went on to suggest that Tchaikovsky might consider “melodies in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau …” Responding in French, Tchaikovsky enthusiastically agreed. Indeed, this was not his first ballet, but it was his first, and only, sustained collaboration with Petipa and Vsevolozhsky. And it was a genuine and engaged collaboration: Vsevolozhsky and Tchaikovsky’s graceful and beautifully mannered correspondence reveals the respect and warmth they felt for each other, and the three men met frequently to exchange ideas (always in French). Tchaikovsky also often appeared at Petipa’s home (the ballet master’s daughter later recalled the excitement of these visits) and played what he had written on the piano while Petipa shifted his papier-mâché figurines around a large round table.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Today, we like to think of The Sleeping Beauty as an elevated artistic landmark, but at the time of its premiere in 1890 many critics and observers saw it as a sellout to low popular taste. They were not entirely wrong. As a consequence of Alexander III’s theatrical reforms and the explosion of popular musical theaters in and around the city, audiences were treated to a whole new array of performances — not just Russian fare, but lavish mime and dance spectacles mounted by Italians with (as one critic complained) “masses” of performers and fantastic effects. These were Manzotti’s Excelsior dancers, and the spectacles were known as ballets-féeries for their fairy-tale magic and emphasis on the merveilleuse. In 1885 Virginia Zucchi set the trend when she danced at the Sans Souci in St. Petersburg in a lavish six-hour-long féerie entitled An Extraordinary Journey to the Moon (after Jules Verne), which had already had successful runs at music halls in Paris, London and Moscow. Shortly thereafter, the Italian dancer and mime Enrico Cecchetti mounted his abridged version of Excelsior, which played for over two years in the Russian capital.

This “Italian invasion” touched a sensitive political nerve. The suburban theaters catered to a burgeoning urban populace created by industrialization and the movement of peasants and workers, fleeing crushing rural poverty, into towns and cities. Ostrovsky enthusiastically welcomed the change and saw the ballet-féerie as an “appealing” people’s art that might “replace” outmoded court ballets with a more modern and accessible form. Others, however, were mortified and complained that the féerie represented a decadent and democratizing Western culture. It was nothing more than “ballet as circus” and its performers moved like “machines” with “steel points” and “sharp” gestures. Their flexibility, one critic bristled, was an affront to “correctness and beauty of line” and unfit for a “self-respecting stage.”

Partly this was a matter of technique. Italian dancers had developed an arsenal of remarkable stunts such as multiple turns and extended balances on pointe, whereas dancers at the Imperial Theaters still favored the softer and more fleeting movements of the French Romantic school. One Russian dancer later recalled his shock at seeing the new Italian style: Russian men, he noted, generally confined themselves to a restrained three or four pirouettes, whereas the Italians brashly spun out eight or nine. More alarming still, the Italians seemed to throw themselves from step to step with anarchic abandon. Their school, one critic glumly concluded, represented “a confused nihilism in choreography”. Tchaikovsky, Vsevolozhsky and Petipa stood firmly with the skeptics: Tchaikovsky had seen Excelsior in Naples and thought its subject “inexpressibly stupid”, and Petipa and the “old titans” (as they were referred to) at the Imperial Theaters, including Vsevolozhsky, were equally unimpressed. One dancer recalled seeing Petipa at a féerie slumped in the stalls with his head hung in despair.

Yet The Sleeping Beauty was itself a ballet-féerie — not a “sellout” but an astute artistic counterattack designed to beat the Italians at their own game while at the same time affirming the aristocratic heritage of the Russian ballet. It marked a sharp departure from the exotic and Romantic ballets of the past and had none of the charming village boys or ghostly, spirit-like ballerinas coveted on the St. Petersburg ballet stage. Nor was Beauty a slavish reprise of Perrault’s fairy tale, for although Perrault had originally written it as a tribute to Louis XIV’s “modern” France, it was Vsevolozhsky who introduced the lavish grand siècle setting. The ballet opens in the 16th century with the birth of a young princess who is cursed by an evil fairy and condemned to death upon her coming of age. The good (Lilac) fairy, however, softens the sentence and when the princess pricks her finger on a spindle the entire French court falls into a deep sleep, only to be awakened one hundred years later to the glorious reign of the Sun King. As a story, it was thin (one disgruntled critic complained, “They dance, they fall asleep, they dance again”), but that was the point: The Sleeping Beauty was not a narrative pantomime ballet in the old sense at all. It was about the court and its formal ceremonies — a royal birth and coming of age, a wedding and celebration. It was a sympathetic ritual reenactment of the courtly principles of classical ballet and Imperial Russia alike.

Petipa took seriously the 17th century setting: he studied pictures of the Sun King and made careful notes about Apollo and the “fairies with long trains, as drawn on the ceilings of Versailles.” He read about old court dances and pored over Perrault’s works, carefully cutting out and saving illustrations. Vsevolozhsky spared no cost in the sets and costumes (the ballet absorbed more than a quarter of the 1890 annual production budget for the Imperial Theaters) and brightly colored silk, velvet, gold and silver embroidery, brocade, furs, and plumes were all in abundant display, giving the production a vibrant, candy-coated appeal. This impressive pomp and pageantry was never stuffy or bombastic, and the ballet had many entertaining fairytale characters drawn from other Perrault stories, such as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Puss-in-Boots, whose whimsical dances lightened the last act. The apotheosis, however, struck a high note: against a backdrop of Versailles with terraces, fountains and the grande pièce d’eau, audiences were given a vision of “Apollo in the costume of Louis XIV lit by the sun and surrounded by fairies.” The ballet ended triumphantly with a musical quotation from the French popular tune celebrating an earlier French king, “Vive Henri IV!”

Just as the fairies in the prologue endowed the baby princess with gifts of beauty, wit, grace, dance, song and music, so The Sleeping Beauty civilized and refined the ballet-féerie, bringing it up to meet the elevated standards of a classical art. Tchaikovsky’s music set the tone, and its sophisticated, graceful classicism and eloquent Russian sweep presented Petipa with unprecedented choreographic challenges. Many critics found the music too operatic, and the dancers complained bitterly that it was difficult to move to. Accustomed to the predicable rhythms and simple, programmatic structure of Pugni and Minkus, Petipa pressed himself — and his dancers — to find newly suitable movements. Ironically, when searching for material he drew precisely on the Italian techniques he had so lamented. Indeed, the title role was performed by the Milanese dancer Carlotta Brianza (a veteran Excelsior performer), and Enrico Cecchetti was cast as the evil fairy Carabosse and in the difficult Bluebird Variation.

Petipa, however, did more than just repeat the tricks he learned from these Italians. He had a concrete, technical mind — he was interested in the mechanics of the steps and readily grasped the Italian innovations, particularly in pointe work — but he also had a deep appreciation of the architecture and physics of ballet, and he knew, or learned, how to refine and discipline their bombast and enthusiasm to give them a depth and dimension they lacked hitherto. In the Rose Adagio, for example, in which the princess is courted by four princes hoping to win her hand in marriage, the ballerina must balance on one leg as each of her suitors takes her hand and then leaves her to make way for the next. This kind of balance, in which the ballerina is left standing perilously alone on a single pointe, was a typical Italian stunt. But Petipa transformed it into a poetic metaphor. Sustained by the lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music, the ballerina’s balance represents her independence and strength of character: it was no longer a trick but a test of free will.

So it was with the charming solo dances for each of the six fairies in the ballet’s prologue. These dances are all perfectly constructed models of classical principles. Again, Petipa did not shy away from virtuosity — the dances are full of difficult jumps on pointe, multiple turns, and fast footwork — but he tamed these bravura steps, ordered them, and pinned them into elegant, architectonic, and musically disciplined phrases. They look like scintillating aphorisms, the dance equivalent of La Bruyère’s sharp-tongued maxims or the conversational wit of les précieuses. Each dance works on many levels: it traces a symmetrical path across the floor (recalling Feuillet) with clear lines and sharp diagonals, for example, and these same lines and diagonals are then reflected and reproduced in the geometry of the steps themselves. But it was not just the construction of the dances that was so impressive; it was the way that dancers moved to Tchaikovsky’s music. It is difficult today to imagine just how different these dances must have been to perform. Tchaikovsky’s music brought out a whole new range and tone color in the human body, a nuance and subtlety that Minkus or Pugni could never inspire.

Even today’s most skilled performers find Petipa’s fairy variations a test of classical precision: the slightest false move or cheat — a leg straying off center or a step out of line — immediately shows and throws the whole dance into disarray, as if a poem had been scanned poorly or a column in a Greek temple carelessly distorted. Performing these dances well is a matter of technical acuity and cast-iron discipline but also of style: a dancer cannot plausibly get through them without a modicum of charm. The steps and music — not to mention the luxurious costumes — make dancers move like courtiers, with chest open and a light, high center of gravity.

No acting was necessary: Beauty had very little “he said, she said” pantomime, and the mime and dance sequences were not musically distinct or set apart, as they had been customarily. The gestures and the dances flowed together seamlessly, and Petipa and Tchaikovsky thus quietly returned ballet to one of its original premises: mime and dance were a natural extension of the noble comportment that Russian courtiers had been practicing and perfecting for nearly two centuries. They meshed so beautifully because they came from a single source, just as they had in the grand siècle: court etiquette.

Audiences, or at least critics, were disoriented: Beauty did not fit into any of the old categories, and many saw it as little more than an empty parade of “too luxurious” sets and costumes. “A ballet, as we understand it?” one indignantly squealed. “No! It is the complete decline of choreographic art!” If there was a reference point, it lay in the decorative rather than the performing arts. Beauty bore a striking resemblance to Fabergé’s exquisitely rendered objets de luxe. These ornamental pieces, including the famous Fabergé eggs, were enormously sought after by the tsar and the Russian elite at the time. Their superior craftsmanship, hyperrefinement, and meticulous, detailed re-creation of a world-in-a-shell had an intense appeal for an elite increasingly in retreat from the social and political problems facing their country. Fabergé reproduced the court in miniature; Beauty put it on the stage. The similarities were not lost on a younger generation of artists, including several who would later go on to create the Ballets Russes. They rightly saw that sealed within The Sleeping Beauty lay a whole way of life and “world of art”.

The Sleeping Beauty was thus the first truly Russian ballet. It was an impressive act of cultural absorption: this was no longer Russians imitating the French but instead a pitch-perfect summation of the rules and forms that had shaped the Russian court since Peter the Great. With Beauty, Petipa found a way to take out the seams of French ballet, to expand its technique and expressivity while paradoxically reinforcing its strict formal rules and proportions. And if the ballet’s grand scale seemed to some a capitulation to féerie and spectacle, it could also be read as an exaltation of the dignity and noble ideals of an aristocratic art. But Beauty also showed that high court ballet could meet popular theater and assimilate that and the Italian techniques too, folding them both into a newly Russian style of dance. It is no accident that the ballet flowed from the imagination of a great Russian composer working in conjunction with a Francophile St. Petersburger and a Russified Frenchman, and that its cast was led by Italians with Russians filling the ranks.

The key to the ballet’s enduring appeal, however, was Tchaikovsky. It is a point worth emphasizing: Tchaikovsky was the first composer of real stature to see ballet as a substantial art, and his music lifted dance onto a new plane. Before Tchaikovsky, music for ballet had been tied to dance forms and rhythms, and (later) to programmatic music or vaudeville tunes designed to illustrate and narrate pantomimed action. None of this was necessarily to be regretted, well into the 19th century ballet composers across Europe had produced lovely and serviceable ballet scores, from Adolphe Adam’s Giselle and Léo Delibes’s Sylvia (a ballet Tchaikovsky himself greatly admired) in Paris to the melodic dances of the “big three” in St. Petersburg: Riccardo Drigo, Pugni (both Italians), and Ludwig Minkus (who was Austrian). However, these composers tended to follow rather than lead, and their music enhanced and illustrated but rarely challenged — much less upset — the way that dancers moved.

Not so with Tchaikovsky. It was not merely that The Sleeping Beauty was a powerful symphonic score that stood on its own merits, without Petipa’s dances. What mattered was the way the music worked on the human body and spirit. Even today, Tchaikovsky’s music pushes dancers to move with a fullness and subtlety that few other composers then or since have inspired. It is no accident that Tchaikovsky’s music was initially perceived by some as too operatic or big or difficult for the public, and especially the dancers, to fathom. Human bodies did not — never had — moved that way before. And yet the change was also perfectly natural, scaled to St. Petersburg and their own lives.

Petipa became a great choreographer because of Tchaikovsky, and he knew it: his memoirs pay touching tribute to the composer and he was well aware of the momentous opportunity Vsevolozhsky had afforded him. Tchaikovsky was pleased too, and Modest recalled the composer’s delight with “the miracles of elegance, luxury, originality in the costumes and scenery, and with the inexhaustible grace and variety of Petipa’s fantasy.” And if Alexander III failed to appreciate the ballet’s significance, commenting dryly that it seemed to him “very nice”, the public was enchanted: The Sleeping Beauty was performed more than twenty times in 1890–91, accounting for more than half of the ballet performances that season. Modest wrote to the composer: “Your ballet has become a kind of obsession…. people have ceased saying to each other ‘How are you?’ Instead, they ask, ‘Have you seen The Sleeping Beauty?’”

Little bears can finally answer, Yes!

At Festival Theatre, Adelaide

Luckily, The Australian Ballet has revived The Sleeping Beauty again this year, for a season in Adelaide.

The Australian Ballet’s ravishingly beautiful production of The Sleeping Beauty, directed by David McAllister, sold out when it premiered in Sydney in 2015, and then subsequently in Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.

Artistic director David McAllister’s reimagining of the fairytale, first choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1890, was one of the company’s biggest-ever hits upon its 2015 debut. It was also the most expensive. So no point having its 300 bespoke costumes, 100 wigs and hats, and 130 pairs of fairy wings – altogether said to have used 5,000 metres of tulle – gathering dust…

The costumes are stunning and the sets are lavish. Not entirely out-of-place at the court of Louis XIV! Gabriela Tylesova’s wonderland includes floral garlands, marble columns, three massive chandeliers for the finale and a princess casket that must be seen to be believed: something like a massive Faberge egg with a bed of pink roses, it wouldn’t be a bad place to kip for a hundred years.

This ballet features exquisite solos and group routines that are danced in perfect unison. The sequence of whirling leaps from a lovesick Prince Désiré was breathtaking. It’s a ballet full of entrancing moments – the Rose Adage, the vision scene, the Bluebird Pas de deux – and the appearance of Aurora’s six fairy godmothers at the baby princess’ christening is one of the most charming of these.

(L-R) Natasha Kusen as The Fairy of Grace, Sarah Thompson as The Fairy of Musicality, Valerie Tereshchenko as The Lilac Fairy, Sharni Spencer as the Fairy of Generosity, Dana Stephensen as The Fairy of Temperament and Amanda McGuigan as The Fairy of Joy (at the front)

There is no Fairy of Mischief! Isabelle volunteers 🙂

Robyn Hendricks, as Princess Aurora, lit up the stage, and she is blessed with remarkable balance. Not many ballerinas could stand en pointe for as long as Robyn Hendricks does while letting her suitors down gently. A ballet first-timer could appreciate her athleticism; a veteran, her technical precision.

Robyn Hendricks as Princess Aurora and Ty King Wall as Prince Désiré

One didn’t need the program notes to know that Alice Topp as Carabosse, stalking the stage in flowing black and giving an evil eye for the ages, was the baddie of the piece.

Alice Topp as Carabosse

The storytelling is crystal clear – Princess Aurora is cursed by the witch Carabosse for being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening. Carabosse proclaims the princess will die on her 16th birthday, but the Lilac Fairy, who comes late to the party, announces Aurora will merely sleep for 100 years and be woken by a handsome prince. In Act III Aurora and Désiré’s wedding is celebrated with a masked ball with guests dressed as fairy-tale characters.

An altogether sparkly night! Even ballet skeptics are unlikely to fall asleep during this Beauty.

Venice and the Renaissance

Much of the Venice that we know today is the product of a flurry of artistic output during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries — at a time when the republic had already begun its slow decline. This is not to say that Venice was not beautiful before the 15th century, but it had a very different sort of beauty. Venice lived in the West, but its gaze was ever on the East. As a child of the Byzantine Empire, Venice naturally adopted the artistic style of its sophisticated parent. This can still be seen, staring out from the mosaic-covered walls of scattered churches in Ravenna that escaped the plundering of conquerors and the zeal of iconoclasts. Venetians most admired this style of art during their first millennium, and they used it to adorn their holy places.

Basilica di San Marco
An image from a Vatican Codex (12th century) believed to be a representation of the Church of the Holy Apostles

Artists in the Middle Ages were craftsmen — much like goldsmiths, cobblers, or blacksmiths — trained to create a product. And just as blacksmiths did not sign horseshoes, the identity of medieval artists and architects has almost always remained unknown. Yet the beauty of their creations still testifies to their skill. Although the church of San Marco was modelled on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (demolished in 1461), the identity of the person who oversaw its construction remains a mystery. Greek artists were surely employed to produce the mosaics adorning the interior of San Marco, most of which were executed in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. Like that of all Byzantine churches, San Marco’s beauty is internal. The open area beneath the grand cupolas was designed to draw the worshipper’s attention skyward, toward the heavens. Biblical scenes, the lives of saints, and important events in Venetian history cover the upper walls and ceilings. Lit by hundreds of candles, the interior powerfully evokes the presence of the sacred.

Interior of Basilica di San Marco
The dome in Basilica di San Marco
Mosaics in Basilica di San Marco
Mosaics in Basilica di San Marco

The exterior of San Marco was another matter. Following Byzantine practice, the church’s outside wall consisted of exposed brick with very little ornamentation. Over the centuries, as San Marco and its Piazza became more important to the people of Venice, that changed. The greatest improvements occurred after 1204, when ships laden with treasures from conquered Constantinople arrived in Venice. Rich marbles and reliefs were mounted on the exterior of San Marco in almost haphazard fashion. Similarly, items such as the dark tetrarchs (mounted on a corner), the “Acre” columns (placed before a now-closed entrance on the Piazzetta), and the bronze horses (set on the front balcony) were used to decorate the church at the centre of Venetian civic life.

Horses on the balcony of Basilica di San Marco
Decorative columns on the balcony of Basilica di San Marco
Little bears resting outside Basilica di San Marco

Beyond San Marco one must look hard to find evidence of Venetian art before the 15th century. The best example is Torcello’s church of Santa Maria Assunta, which has along its back wall a breathtaking mosaic of the Last Judgment produced in the 12th century.

Mosaic in Santa Maria Assunta
Mosaic in Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello

At one time all the churches in Venice were decorated in this way. But then came the Italian Renaissance, and zeal for this new artistic style quickly swept away the medieval mosaics and frescoes. Few churches were spared. However, in a quiet part of Venice there is still a place where one can get a feel for the medieval parish church: San Giovanni Decollato (St. John the Baptist Beheaded) in Santa Croce, tucked away between San Giacomo dall’Orio and the Fondaco dei Turchi. At least a thousand years old, the little church is a precious gem, covered in a traditional ship’s keel roof and adorned with Byzantine columns. Overshadowed by the larger San Giacomo dall’Orio, it did not see much use during the Renaissance or baroque periods, and so it was largely left alone. At some point in the early 19th century the church was abandoned entirely. Its inside walls were plastered and it was used for storage. In 1994, however, San Giovanni Decollato was reopened after extensive restorations, revealing a window to a Venice that had long since passed away. Chipping away the plaster exposed beautiful medieval frescoes depicting St. Helena, the Annunciation, the four Evangelists, and St. Michael defeating Satan as a dragon. It is a place of quiet reverence — something almost extinct in the modern city.

San Giovanni Decollato

Venice’s earliest palazzi were likewise built along Byzantine lines, although with uniquely Venetian modifications. One of the oldest is Ca’ Farsetti, which stands very near the Rialto Bridge. Built by Ranieri Dandolo before 1209, the palazzo exhibits the classic rounded arches opening to doors, windows, or balconies all across its façade. The Ca’ Farsetti has many of the features that would become standard for Venetian palazzi. The ground level, which opened directly onto the Grand Canal, was designed for commerce. There a merchant vessel could be loaded or unloaded and goods stored. The family also kept smaller boats on the ground floor, along with oars, sails, and occasionally a bedroom for a servant or slave. At the back of the ground floor a door opened to a private courtyard with a well and stairs to the upper levels, where the family lived. Upstairs could be found a wide hallway flanked by a ballroom, dining room, and sitting room for entertaining. Family quarters frequently spread across several floors as different nuclear families claimed separate sections of a palazzo owned by a common ancestor.

Ca’ Farsetti

Venice’s palazzi are most striking for their open doors and windows, designed to facilitate communication, commerce, and the circulation of air. Elsewhere in Italy, aristocrats built fortified compounds with iron bars on the doors and windows, thick walls, and mighty towers to defend the family during the factional warfare that so often raged across their cities. Such precautions were unnecessary in Venice. Nothing speaks more eloquently of the genius of the Venetian republican system than the rows of rich and utterly defenceless palazzi that still crowd the sides of the Grand Canal, and every other canal in Venice. The owners of these ornate palaces were powerful men with all of the enemies that power brings. Yet they never conceived of the idea that those enemies, who were fellow Venetians after all, would wage war against them in their homes. Venetian politics was rough and often treacherous, but it rarely turned to violence. Allegiance to the republic, rather than to any one man or dynasty, served Venice very well.

By the 14th century Venetian architects began joining together two foreign influences often encountered by their well-travelled merchants. The Gothic style of pointed archways had swept through France and, by extension, the crusader states in Syria. So, too, Islamic architecture seen in Alexandria made its way into Venetian designs. The result is what is often called Venetian Gothic. It is characterized by pointed arches accentuated with various designs along an open façade. The Ducal Palace is the prime example of this style, yet it can be seen in numerous other private palaces, such as the Ca’ d’Oro, with its coloured stones and ornate traceries of golden colours.

Ducal Palace
Ca’ d’Oro

The Italian Renaissance was born in Florence in the 14th century and quickly travelled to Venice by way of Padua. It was characterized by a rebirth of classical models of architecture, sculpture and literature. Renaissance artists, like Renaissance humanists, searched the ancient past for a way forward. They rejected the flat medieval styles, perfecting instead new techniques that sought to breathe life into their art. Unlike medieval craftsmen, these new artists cultivated a celebrity status, not only signing their works, but overseeing busy studios of apprentices.

Venice’s adoption of these Renaissance styles was itself a remarkable break with the past, for the Venetians had always favoured the sophisticated East when it came to artistic expression. But times were changing. The flame of Byzantium was flickering and even Venice turned its attention to the Western terra firma. Among the earliest Renaissance artists in Venice was Jacopo Bellini. The son of a Venetian tinsmith, Bellini worked under Gentile da Fabriano, who produced various now-lost works for the Great Council in 1408. Bellini accompanied his master to Florence, where he remained for some years learning the new artistic techniques pioneered there. Later, Bellini travelled to Bruges, where he was introduced to the use of oil paints on canvas — a medium that would forever change Venice.

University of Padua

The seat of high culture in 15th century Venice was not at the governmental centre, but in its outskirts at Padua. There, since 1222, a university had flourished that drew the best minds in Europe and provided an excellent education for Venice’s elite. After returning to Venice, Bellini set up shop in Padua with his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni. They were likely influenced by the arrival in 1443 of Donatello, who lived in Padua for about a decade. His masterwork during those years was the equestrian statue of the condottiere Erasmo da Narni, otherwise known as Gattamelata (Honey Cat). This magnificent life-size bronze was the first such statue produced since the days of ancient Rome. It remains there still, just outside the main entrance of the Basilica of St. Anthony.

Donatello, Equestrian monument of Erasmo da Narni, called Gattamelata
ca. 1443-53
Bronze on marble plinth

Jacopo Bellini and his sons later moved to Venice, where they found their expertise in the new Renaissance style in high demand. Under their influence, the Venetians abandoned the fresco and adopted canvas and oil paintings. This was a matter of pure practicality. Although frescoes were generally easier to produce, they did not fare well in the humid, salty air of the Venetian lagoon. To avoid the peeling and fading that plagued Venetian frescoes, patrons began ordering the new oil paintings on canvas. Often these were giant canvases specifically constructed to cover entire walls. In the Great Council Chamber on the second floor of the Ducal Palace, 14th century frescoes that depicted the Peace of Venice, the Fourth Crusade, and the Coronation of the Virgin had badly faded during the last hundred years. Gentile and Giovanni Bellini produced large canvases of the same subjects, although updated in style, which were then hung over the original frescoes.

Ducal Palace Great Council Chamber

Both Bellini brothers remained in demand in Venice and beyond. Gentile commanded extraordinary sums for his exquisite portraits. Indeed, in the 1470s he became the portrait artist of the doges. The honour of having one’s image executed by Gentile Bellini was so great that the Senate employed it as a diplomatic tool. Gentile was, for example, sent to Germany, where he painted a portrait of Emperor Frederick III. He was not only well paid, but even given a knighthood by the grateful monarch. Similarly, in 1479 the Venetians sweetened the deal for peace with the Turks by agreeing to send Gentile to Constantinople to paint a portrait of the sultan. Mehmed the Conqueror, who hoped to soon rule Italy, was intrigued by the artistic innovations of the Italian Renaissance and eager to be immortalized by its techniques. Gentile’s portrait of Mehmed, which today can be seen in London’s National Gallery, remains a fascinating study of this enigmatic man.

Portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror by Gentile Bellini

Wealthy patrons for Venetian Renaissance painters could also be found in the city’s various scuole. Despite their name, these were pious fraternal organizations with a devotion to a particular saint or relic. Although nobles and non-nobles could join, by the 15th century the men of Venice’s scuole were usually well off and politically connected. At a scuola’s meetings and banquets members had an opportunity to network and generally enjoy one another’s company in a grand hall. The scuole also undertook numerous charitable works, provided some death benefits for their members, and routinely staged elaborate processions in the city. In other words, with the exception of the religious element, the scuole were not unlike fraternal organizations today.

The various scuole in Venice engaged in some competition with one another, which manifested itself in the size and lavishness of their processions and halls. They were eager to adorn their walls with the latest and most beautiful art extolling, of course, their own organizations, and here they turned to the Bellinis. Gentile was commissioned to produce several canvases depicting scenes in the history of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista’s greatest relic, a fragment of the True Cross. Around 1496 he painted The Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco, and then a few years later The Recovery of the Relic of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo. Both of these works (now in the Accademia Gallery in Venice) were commissioned to tell the story of miracles: the first about a cure and the second about a discovery. Yet the miracles in these two paintings are lost amid a busy panorama of the people and places of Venice. The Procession is really a depiction of the Piazza San Marco, filled with the members of the scuola and a host of other Venetians of all ranks. The Recovery is much the same, set on the canal of San Lorenzo. The object of both paintings is Venice itself and the people who lived there. This narrative style — filling the canvas with people, events, and structures tangential to the subject of the work — would remain an enduring feature of Venetian Renaissance paintings. It was a marked change from Roman or Florentine methods, which populated their paintings with stylized classical architecture or ideal forms.

Gentile Bellini, The Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco, 1496
Gentile Bellini, The Recovery of the Relic of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, 1500

Giovanni Bellini had as successful a career as his brother, although he tended to focus more on religious subjects for Venice’s churches and monasteries. Among his most famous are the Transfiguration (now in Museo di Capodimonte, Naples) and St. Francis in the Desert (now in the Frick Collection, New York). After Gentile’s death in 1507, Giovanni became the unquestioned master of oil painting in Venice. His studio was filled with young artists, responding to the rising demand for art among Venice’s institutions and elite, and fuelled by the extraordinary wealth of the city.

Giovanni Bellini, Transfiguration, ca. 1480
Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert, ca. 1480

Giovanni Bellini’s most famous pupil was Tiziano Vecelli, better known as Titian. It is impossible in so short a space to do justice to the life and artistic output of this giant of Venetian painting. During his long life, Titian produced hundreds of canvases and acquired a fame that spanned Europe. Titian, more than any other artist, cemented Venice’s reputation as a leader in art. Like his predecessors, he composed works for the government, churches, and scuole. His magnificent Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple was produced for the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità. It remains there still, in the Accademia Gallery, which is the heir of the old scuola building. Titian’s most famous work, though, is surely his Assumption of the Virgin, completed in 1518. For more than two years he laboured over this massive canvas, to be hung over the high altar of the Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, where it remains today. Titian’s rich use of light and colour in this masterpiece draws the observer ever upward, from the terrestrial to the angelic hosts bearing the Virgin Mary and finally to God in heaven.

Titian, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-18
Oil on wood
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Remember the Pesaro family from Venice and the Baroque? They really got around!

Titian, Madonna with Saints and Members of the Pesaro Family, 1519-26
Oil on canvas
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

As Titian’s fame spread, the courts of Europe called him to paint the portraits of leaders such as Pope Paul III and Empress Eleanor of Portugal. He was summoned to Augsburg, where he painted a series of portraits of the ruler of the largest empire in history, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. His famous equestrian portrait of Charles V was the first of its kind, establishing a new genre of royal portrait style. Titian remained active until his death at around ninety, when he was one of thousands of victims of a plague that ravaged Venice in August 1576. So great was his fame that the government made an exception to its law about the disposal of the bodies of plague victims, which were usually dumped onto an island or into the sea. Instead, Titian was buried with full honours, as he had wished, in the glorious church of the Frari, made more glorious by his own works.

Titian, Equestrian Portrait of Charles V, 1548
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Although not as famous as Titian, his contemporary Vittore Carpaccio flourished by providing paintings for the usual clientele of patricians, scuole, and the government. Much of his work for the Ducal Palace was lost in fires, but his famous Lion of St. Mark, executed in 1518 for the Treasury Office, not only survives but has become a symbol of the city to this day. Like his teacher, Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio filled his backgrounds with the sights and people of Venice. His winged lion strikes a familiar pose, one paw on the open Gospel, yet in the background can be seen the Bacino San Marco with ships, faraway campaniles, and the Ducal Palace itself. Carpaccio’s biggest customers were the scuole. He painted a number of works on the life of St. Ursula for the scuola dedicated to her. Like the works of Bellini, Carpaccio’s Healing of the Madman has precious little miraculous in it, but much that is mundane. Set in the Rialto area, the scene is filled with people, gondolas, and the old wooden Rialto Bridge. In the distance can be seen many houses and the forests of chimneys that defined Venice’s cityscape then, as now.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Lion of St Mark, 1516
Tempera on canvas, Ducal Palace
Vittore Carpaccio, The Healing of the Madman, c. 1496
Tempera on canvas, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Artistic culture in Venice benefited greatly from current events in Rome, although that was not immediately evident at the time. The lavish patronage of the pope had made Rome the centre of the Renaissance. That changed in 1527 when Charles V invaded Italy and his unruly and largely Protestant soldiers sacked Rome. Talent quickly fled the Eternal City, much of it landing in Venice, where the demand for art coincided nicely with the money to pay for it. One transplant was the brilliant architect Jacopo Tatti, known as Sansovino. Doge Andrea Gritti commissioned him to repair, update, and beautify the main civic centre of Venice around San Marco. The Piazza and Piazzetta were no more dirty, noisy, or disorderly than before, but Doge Gritti hoped to transform them into something akin to the beautifully decorated open spaces found in Rome. At great expense the government began buying out the owners of stalls in the area, some of whom had done business there for centuries. In their place, Sansovino built the Biblioteca Marciana, directly across the Piazzetta from the Ducal Palace. It was later expanded to include the state mint, or Zecca. Almost immediately after its construction, the vault over the main hall of the library collapsed and, in good Venetian fashion, Sansovino was arrested and charged with gross negligence. He was forced to rebuild the structure with a flat roof at his own expense.

Biblioteca Marciana
Biblioteca Marciana

The mishap did not damage Sansovino’s career. Indeed, he was appointed Proto of the Procurators of San Marco, the highest architectural position in the city, and in this capacity he redesigned several parts of the Ducal Palace. His best-known additions, though, are the stairways. He replaced the old ceremonial stairway in the palace’s courtyard with the new Scala dei Giganti, a sweeping marble staircase flanked on both sides by massive statues of Mercury and Neptune, representing trade and the sea. Sansovino also designed the famous Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase) in the palace’s east wing, leading to the chambers of the Senate and the Ten. His work extended to churches, updating their form to the latest styles. He designed, for example, San Francesco della Vigna, San Martino, San Giuliano, and San Geminiano. For twenty years Sansovino worked on the palace of the Corner family, known today simply as Ca’ Grande. Like all of his designs, and those of his contemporaries, the styles of classical Rome, evoking the humanism of an ancient age, were used to replace the medieval Gothic wherever possible.

Ducal palace – Scala dei Giganti
Ducal palace – Scala d’Oro

Among Venice’s architects, however, none can rival the reputation and legacy of Andrea Palladio. The son of a miller in Padua, the young Andrea was apprenticed to a stonecutter, who apparently treated him badly. In 1524 he fled Padua, taking up residence in Vicenza. There he gained the attention of Gian Giorgio Trissino, a humanist who recognized the young man’s talent for architecture. Since Andrea had no surname, Trissino called him Palladio, meaning “wise one”. With Trissino’s patronage, Palladio was able to travel to Rome to study and measure ruins, seeking to re-create the glory of the ancients. His reading there included Vitruvius’s De architectura, a first century treatise on Roman methods and the only architectural work to survive from antiquity. After Trissino’s death in 1540, Palladio went to Venice, where he met the wealthy and powerful patrician Daniele Barbaro. Like many Venetian nobles in those days, Barbaro was a well-educated man of letters. He had served as ambassador to the court of Elizabeth I in England and as representative to the Council of Trent, which had set the reform agenda for the Catholic Church after the disruption of the Protestant Reformation. Barbaro was later made a cardinal and even elected patriarch of Aquileia. He encouraged Palladio’s genius, bringing him to Rome in 1554. Two years later Barbaro and Palladio published a new edition of Vitruvius.

Palladio’s architectural style, based firmly on classical models, found its most energetic employment in the magnificent mainland villas of wealthy Venetian nobles. He designed dozens of them, including Daniele Barbaro’s own Villa Barbaro. The Palladian style, as it came to be known, would become the new face of Western architecture for centuries. It was, in short, a revival of antiquity. Within its solid, clean lines and towering columns, it celebrated a Roman and Greek past reborn in a new age of virtue and self-confidence. Palladio spelled out its elements and methods in his seminal work, The Four Books on Architecture, published in 1570. During the 18th century Enlightenment, Palladian architecture became the embodiment of reason in building, dispelling the superstition of the medieval “Gothic” (that is, barbarian). It spread across Europe and into the colonies, even arriving in British North America. There the well-educated country gentlemen embraced Palladio as the architect of a new age. Thomas Jefferson read Palladio and used his methods when designing his own estate at Monticello. Likewise, the design of public structures in Washington, D.C., was largely based on Palladio’s work. American government buildings so often resemble ancient temples precisely because of the architectural styles forged by Palladio.

Villa Barbaro in Maser
Villa Barbaro in Maser
Villa Barbaro has a carriage house 

It is no exaggeration to say that Andrea Palladio changed the face of Venice. As the classical style became the rage, he was in high demand to design new buildings or redesign old ones. In some cases he simply placed a new classical façade over a medieval structure, as at San Pietro di Castello, where the white steps, columns, and capitals replaced the bare bricks of the medieval building. In other cases he designed entirely new buildings, such as the Redentore church on Giudecca or the church of Santa Lucia (where the train station now stands). His most visible masterpiece, however, was the new church of San Giorgio Maggiore, facing the Bacino San Marco — an unmistakable part of the Venetian cityscape. With the creation of this church the Bacino had become majestically framed much as it is today. The last element in the group, the church of Santa Maria della Salute, was added during the next century. Like the Redentore, the Salute was built in thanksgiving for the departure of a terrible plague. Although it owed much to Palladio, the Salute, which was completed in 1687, is very much a product of the baroque period, with its elaborate decoration so favoured in Venice.

La Basilica di San Pietro di Castello
Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore
Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore

In 1577 a disastrous fire broke out in the Ducal Palace and quickly destroyed most of the sections toward the sea, including the Great Council Chamber. The Venetian government asked architects to submit ideas for the palace’s repair, reconstruction, or rebuilding. Given the tastes of the time, it is not surprising that most architects considered the fire to be a providential opportunity to rid themselves of a medieval eyesore. Palladio favoured tearing the whole thing down and starting fresh with a new, classical structure. In another city, one ruled by a monarch with a penchant for the arts, Palladio would surely have had his way. But Venice was a republic, and the people of Venice — steeped in a conservative commercial culture that valued stability — would hear nothing of such alterations to their house. The Ducal Palace was a cherished part of their history. It belonged to them and they would not give it up.


While the architects and officials argued, the Great Council held its meetings at the Arsenale, in a warehouse used to store the fleet’s oars. The members were naturally eager to see things moved along. At last the decision was made to repair the Ducal Palace, restoring the lost portions just as they had been. It was also decided to remove the prison from the palace, building a new structure across the canal for that purpose. To avoid the problem of having to cross the canal with guards and criminals, the famous Bridge of Sighs was extended between the two buildings. Although decorated ornately on its exterior, the Bridge of Sighs was meant to be a maximum-security construction.

Bridge of Sighs

The restoration of the Great Council Chamber posed a problem when it came to decoration, for the paintings and frescoes depicting the Peace of Venice, the Fourth Crusade, and the Coronation of the Virgin had been lost in the fire. So long had these scenes decorated the council room that it seemed unthinkable not to replace them. The large canvases that today adorn the walls of that vast room are the results of a major government project to restore what was lost to the flames. Certainly the most spectacular is Paradise by Jacopo Robusti, otherwise known as Tintoretto. The largest oil painting on canvas in the world, Paradise dominates the head of the room. Tintoretto, who was in his seventies, prayed that he would be awarded the commission, saying that he hoped to experience paradise by painting it. He painted the massive 22 by 9 meters (about the size of a tennis court) canvas largely in sections at the Scuola della Misericordia, which was not far from his house. The pieces were then transported to the Ducal Palace, where they were stitched together and the final work was done. Because the aged Tintoretto found it difficult to climb ladders, his son, Domenico, completed many of the final details. While Tintoretto kept the Virgin Mary as the focal point of his work, he greatly expanded its depiction of heaven and its inhabitants. Indeed, the work consists of a great sea of faces, most painted from live subjects, who people the heavenly realm. It was a constant reminder to the assembled council members of the reward for good and honourable service to God and to Venice.

Tintoretto, Paradise, after 1588
Tintoretto, Paradise, detail
Ducal Palace Great Council Chamber

As his name suggests, Tintoretto was the son of a dyer. When he was young and had demonstrated a talent for art, his father placed him as a pupil in the workshop of Titian. For some reason, Titian took a dislike to Tintoretto and within a few weeks the pupil had departed to begin his own career. Without Titian’s connections (and, indeed, with the active dislike of Titian’s partisans), Tintoretto had to be particularly aggressive in seeking contracts. He was a whirlwind of energy, bidding for projects wherever he found them, and there were many projects to be had. Unlike Titian, Tintoretto hardly ever left Venice, being always busy with the next job. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco numbered among his best customers.

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco Upper Hall, majority of paintings by Tintoretto

Tintoretto’s muscular style typified the Mannerism that was popular during the High Renaissance, but his use of colour and light was unique to him. The speed with which he produced his paintings won him plenty of contracts with the Venetian government, particularly after the fire of 1577 when there was a rush to restore the governmental complex. These included the famous Bacchus with Ariadne Crowned by Venice and The Forge of Vulcan. Tintoretto’s political work shared a style with other Venetian artists, such as Paolo Veronese — a style evident on the walls of the Ducal Palace, where there are many pictures that include multiple doges, but few portraits of a single doge. As citizens of a republic, Venetians were careful never to extol one man too much. This was a marked departure from artistic subjects elsewhere in Europe, which often depicted a king, pope, or other ruler in grand style. Instead, the focus of the paintings in the Ducal Palace was on the institutions and people of Venice. Occasionally, Venetians would adopt the ancient Roman practice of depicting their republic as an allegory. This can be seen marvellously in Palma il Giovane’s Allegory of the War of the League of Cambrai (1582) or that masterpiece of nostalgia, Neptune Offering to Venice the Riches of the Sea (ca. 1745) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Tintoretto’s own contribution to this genre, Venice, Queen of the Sea, can be still seen on the ceiling of the Senate chamber.

Tintoretto, Bacchus with Ariadne Crowned by Venice, 1576-77
Oil on canvas
Tintoretto, Forge of Vulcan, 1576-77
Oil on canvas
Tintoretto, Venice, Queen of the Sea, 1584
Oil on canvas

The 16th century also saw the creation of Venice’s most famous bridge, and the only one before the modern era to span the Grand Canal — the Rialto Bridge. Because of the frenetic activity at the Rialto markets, a bridge had been a necessity since at least the 13th century. Several wooden bridges had been built at Rialto over the centuries, each with a pulley system to allow sailing vessels bearing their cargoes to pass through. This was no longer a consideration in the 16th century, however, since the large galleons docked and unloaded their goods at warehouses near the Bacino San Marco. The Venetian government, therefore, announced a competition to design a new stone bridge — one that need only be high enough to allow local traffic and state galleys to pass under it. The greatest architects of the day, including Palladio and Michelangelo, submitted proposals. But the government declined to fund a work of art in the middle of a marketplace unless it had some commercial application. Instead it gave the contract to Antonio da Ponte, the lead architect overseeing the restoration of the Ducal Palace after the 1577 fire. His design was not only graceful but useful. With its three separate pathways, it could move traffic quickly and efficiently. Its market stalls, which faced inward toward the central path, allowed the government to rent out new space in an area in which property values were astronomical. In short, the Rialto Bridge perfectly answered the Venetians’ desire for both beauty and profit, while maintaining the honourable traditions of the past.

Rialto Bridge
Rialto Markets

The extraordinary demand for artistic and architectural products among Renaissance Venetians was fuelled by two things they had in abundance: education and money. The money came, as it always had, through international commerce and trade. Yet by the 16th century much of Venice’s wealth was also generated by a boom in local industry. The wars on the mainland had played havoc with Italian craftsmen, who found it difficult to conduct business amid the cannon fire and raids of mercenary armies. Venice, a city that no enemy had ever captured, seemed extremely attractive for those looking for a new place of business. After all, the extensive trade routes that terminated in Venice ensured that any craftsman could find the materials that he needed to produce finished goods. Populous Venice also had plenty of ready, sometimes educated workers.

The largest industry to take root in 16th century Venice was woollen textiles, followed closely by silk production. By 1600, in a clear sign of the times, more people worked in the silk industry in Venice than built boats. Numerous other specialty industries also developed in the lagoon, including leatherwork and jewellery. Lace made on the island of Burano soon became coveted across Europe, just as it remains among tourists today. This century also saw the rapid development of the glass industry on Murano. Venetian glass gained a wide reputation for excellence and the artistic skill of Murano’s glassblowers became legendary. Aside from producing glassware and decorative items, the craftsmen also created precision hourglasses, crucial in an age of oceanic voyages.

Murano glass chandelier

Education levels in Venice had always been among the highest in Europe. Merchants, after all, must be able to read, write, and count. By the late 14th century a humanistic education, preferably at the University of Padua, was becoming a standard for Venetian patrician men. Humanism thrived on a diet of classical literature — a commodity that was extremely expensive before the 15th century. However, around 1450 Johannes Gutenberg created the first movable-type printing press in Europe. The printing press dramatically reduced the cost of books, which previously had to be copied by hand. Coupled with new techniques in paper production, the printing press ushered in a new age of education, communication, and thought that would ripple through the centuries. Few people in medieval Europe learned to read because there was nothing for them to read. The printing press changed that.

Gutenberg Press

Movable-type print was invented in China, yet there it had nothing like the effects that it would have on Europe. The reason is simple. In China, printing presses were controlled by the imperial government and used for the needs of a complex bureaucracy. In Europe, the printing press was controlled by no one. It was, instead, an entrepreneurial opportunity. Anyone with money and some idea of which books would sell could purchase a printing press and set up shop. For Europeans, therefore, printing became a craft, not unlike making barrels, caulking ships, or painting portraits. Because it had the potential for great profits, printing expanded rapidly.

It should not be too surprising, then, that printing soon arrived and flourished in Venice. The Venetian government was, by its nature, business friendly, and certainly Venice was safe. By the 16th century, printers also had to contend with local governments or church tribunals, both Catholic and Protestant. While the Inquisition in Venice paid attention to what flowed from the city’s presses, it tended to move slowly and often gave the publisher the benefit of the doubt. Paper and ink were readily available in Venice, along with the technical know-how to build and maintain machines. Most importantly, the high literacy rate among Venice’s elite sustained a strong local market for books.

By 1500 nearly a quarter of all publications in Europe were produced in Venice. The most famous, and probably the largest, press in the city was that of Aldus Manutius. A humanist from Bassano, Manutius invested much of his fortune in the publication of Greek classics for the growing audience of humanists in Europe. He established his press in Venice not only because it had become a centre for printing, but because it had a large library of Greek manuscripts from Constantinople, as well as a population of Greeks who could help with their publication. The Aldine Press soon gained a reputation for producing the best scholarly works in Europe. In 1501 Manutius adopted the now-famous symbol of a dolphin around an anchor for his press. This image became so associated with excellence in publishing that it was quickly copied by presses everywhere — and, indeed, until recently was the logo of Doubleday. The organization and capacity of the Aldine Press were truly extraordinary. It employed dozens of printers, scholars, and proof-readers.

Aldus Manutius. Institutiones grammaticae (1523)

Among the latter was the young Desiderius Erasmus, who would go on to become one of the most famous humanists of his age. As he looked back on his first job, though, Erasmus had little good to say about it. He complained of the long hours, poor working conditions, stingy bosses, and bad food (“a morsel of shellfish caught in the sewer”). Whatever Erasmus’s complaints about the Aldine Press, it seems to have taken the young scholar in stride. The busy workshop was always in need of help. According to one of Erasmus’s biographers, the Aldine Press had a sign above its door that read:

Whoever you are, Aldus earnestly begs you to state your business in the fewest possible words and be gone — unless like Hercules to weary Atlas, you would lend a helping hand. There will always be work enough for you, and all who come this way.

To increase sales, Manutius developed several innovations that fundamentally shaped Western book production. During the Middle Ages, books came in all sizes, but in general they tended to be large. Since most books were religious, it made sense to produce larger codices designed to stay put on an altar or at a table in a monastic library. Since the first printed books competed for sales with traditional manuscripts, it is not surprising that they, too, were large. The Gutenberg Bible, for example, is 30 x 45 centimeters. Most printed books were produced in quarto, which meant that a large sheet of paper was printed with four pages on each side and then folded into four parts, cut, and bound into a book. Manutius wanted to bring the size, and thereby the cost, of the book down. He therefore produced the world’s first octavo book — eight pages were printed on each sheet, which was then folded one more time before cutting and binding. This produced a book not much larger than a modern paperback. To fit more print on each page, the Aldine Press adopted a new compact, slanted script, later (and still) called italic. These smaller books were not only cheaper but also portable. The octavo was a huge success — so much so that it was immediately copied by other presses across Europe.

By the end of the 16th century Venice had firmly established itself as a centre for arts and culture. The rude community of fishermen, sailors, and merchants had grown up. In later centuries Venetians would continue to innovate in other cultural fields, particularly in music. However, on the canvas, the great period of innovation was winding down. Giants like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese proved difficult acts to follow. By the 18th century the epicentre of European culture had clearly shifted to Paris. Still, Venice remained important. Tiepolo, who perfected the ceiling painting, was in great demand outside Venice.

As European wealth grew in the 18th century to unprecedented levels, art collectors began to cast their gaze on Venice. The Venetian practice of using canvases rather than frescoes seemed good fortune to art lovers with deep pockets, who began buying up Renaissance masterpieces from Venetian families and churches that were down on their luck. The problem became so acute that the Council of Ten ordered a detailed inventory of all canvas paintings in Venice and strictly regulated their purchase by foreigners, a desperate attempt to hold on to a legacy that was slipping out of their fingers.

Venice Grand Canal

The greatest of all of Venice’s artistic masterpieces, however, was Venice itself. The city of the lagoon, adorned by some of the greatest artists of all time, had become a showplace like none other. Wealthy visitors in the 18th century, many of whom were English tourists, paid large sums for newly executed paintings of the city. To meet the demand, an industry of Venice-scape painters arose — one that still flourishes today. The most famous of these was Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto. An accomplished landscape artist, Canaletto turned his considerable talents to producing highly realistic scenes of Venice. English tourists snapped up his works, bringing them home to remember their trip. When war on the Continent in the 1740s disrupted English travel to Venice, Canaletto moved to England to be closer to his clientele. Although his early scenes were painted from life, his later ones obviously were not. Indeed, Canaletto produced many capriccios — fantastic scenes of an imagined Venice with monumental statues, classical temples, and non-existent bridges. His other works, though, still preserve the image of the city in the 18th century — an image that is surprisingly similar to the Venice of today.

Venice at night

The beauty of Venice’s landscape is unusual, for it is an entirely artificial one. Imposing buildings seem to float on a water canvas that both frames and reflects their splendour. It is an image frozen in time — a Renaissance city that remains unchanged, unmoved. Its magnificence is an enduring monument to a wealthy, powerful, and culturally vibrant republic at the peak of its history.

And yet, unlike the monument of stone and water, that greatness would not last. At the age of one thousand, Venice was entering old age.

Baroque Splendour of Venice

Any serious exploration of the roots of baroque music inevitably leads to Venice, where Claudio Monteverdi laid the foundation for modern opera, continuing work he had started in Mantua. During the 30 years he spent in Venice, Monteverdi also revolutionized sacred music, principally at the Basilica of San Marco, where he was maestro di capella for thirty years. A tour retracing his steps would also include the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where his music was often performed, and Basilica dei Frari, where he is entombed. Teatro La Fenice, where many of his operas were performed, is still in operation and runs a full schedule of operas and concerts.

Claudio Monteverdi, oil painting by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1630

The cityʼs other favourite musical son is Antonio Vivaldi, who was born and trained there, then spent 30 years as maestro di violino at the Ospedale della Pietà music school and orphanage. (The building is now the Metropole, a luxury hotel.) Along with writing brilliant instrumental works like The Four Seasons, Vivaldi was also a prolific opera composer; late in his life he claimed to have written 94 of them. Unfortunately the primary venue where they were performed, the Teatro San Angelo, no longer exists. But his work thrives at the Italian Antonio Vivaldi Institute, which publishes critical editions of his scores and sponsors conferences, master classes and occasional performances.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

Venice has a busy schedule of events, church concerts, festivals, and entertainment, including, of course, Carnevale, the yearly masquerade party. In Venice concert halls and churches, the baroque tradition is kept fresh and vital by period ensembles like Interpreti Venziani and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. And every summer the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music stages a festival that focuses on overlooked works by Monteverdi and Vivaldi.

The concerts — sometimes performed by musicians in wigs and tights — generally focus on the music of Vivaldi, who, having been born in Venice, is as ubiquitous here as Strauss is in Vienna and Mozart in Salzburg. The Interpreti Veneziani orchestra, considered the best group in town, generally performs concerts nightly inside the sumptuous San Vidal Church. We saw them in 2007.

Interpreti Veneziani in the Chiesa San Vidal

Opera is also popular in Venice, with venues like La Fenice (the grand old opera house). But even if you don’t appreciate opera, consider a performance at Musica a Palazzo. The Opera is a travelling show and each act is set in a different hall of one of the most fascinating Venetian palaces: Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto. Each of the operas in the repertoire is a treat, and you spend the evening under Tiepolo frescoes at a Venetian palace on the Grand Canal.

Musica a Palazzo

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Venice 1696 – Madrid 1770) was the leading representative of the Baroque style in Venetian painting and the most famous Venetian painter of the 18th century.

Tiepolo married Maria Cecilia Guardi, the sister of Francesco and Giovanni Guardi, also artists, in 1719. The marriage produced nine children and seven of them survived into adulthood. Two sons, Lorenzo and Domenico, worked as Tiepolo’s assistants and went on to achieve their own recognition. 18th century Venice would be dominated by the Tiepolo family of artists. Venice had lost influence as an artistic centre since the 16th century, the era of Titian and Veronese. Exciting new artists such as Caravaggio and the Carracci brothers were working primarily in central Italy, Rome in particular. By adopting the tradition of grand, allegorical ceiling painting for the aristocratic elite, the father-son team of Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo brought Venice once again into the centre of artistic life.

From 1719 to 1720, Tiepolo painted many frescoes for a palace owned by Giambattista Baglione, a wealthy publisher. He created the Triumph of Aurora and the Myth of Phaethon on the palace’s ceiling and walls respectively. Tiepolo also designed beautiful spatial illusions that soon became a frequent theme throughout his life.

Villa Baglione Main Hall
Tiepolo, Triumph of Aurora, 1719
Fresco, Villa Baglioni

His first masterpiece was a series of paintings for a massive reception area at the Ca’ Dolfin. They depicted historic battles and victories of the Roman Empire. His early masterpieces brought him substantial commissions. He also painted many canvases during the 1730s for churches, which included the Scuola dei Carmini and the Chiesa degli Scalzi (now destroyed).

Scuola Grande dei Carmini, detail of ceiling decoration by Tiepolo,
1749, Oil on canvas
Tiepolo, Angel Holding Two Scrolls, 1739-43
Oil on canvas, Scuola Grande dei Carmini
Tiepolo, Apparition of the Virgin to St Simon Stock, 1749
Oil on canvas, Scuola Grande dei Carmini

By the 1730s, Tiepolo’s fame had gone beyond Venice. He was called to Milan in 1731, and Bergamo in 1732. In the fall of 1734, working “day and night without rest,” as he himself put it, Tiepolo decorated the Villa Loschi, now known as Zileri dal Verme, at Biron, near Vicenza, for which he prepared a famous and very beautiful series of drawings. Tiepolo was a tireless and prodigious sketcher, capable of suggesting with pen and skilful watercolouring the rapid conception of structures and images that he would later carry out in frescoes and paintings.

In 1736 Count Tessin, who had to select a painter to decorate the royal palace in Stockholm, described Tiepolo this way: “full of spirit… of infinite fire, dazzling colour, and astonishing speed.” This is a fitting portrait of both the painter and the man. But Tiepolo would not leave the city of Venice, where the nobility and the clergy were by now contending for his work and where he was being praised as “the most famous of the virtuosi.” Rather, he preferred to send his works abroad, as in the case of The Adoration of the Trinity by Pope Clement (c. 1735), which was sent to Nymphenburg.

By 1750, Tiepolo’s reputation was firmly established throughout Europe, with the help of his friend Francesco Algarotti, an art dealer, critic and collector. An invitation to decorate some of the rooms of the Residenz in Würzburg, Germany came to Tiepolo at one of the happiest moments of his career, in the full maturity of his artistic genius, and he went there in 1750 with his two sons, 23-year-old Giovanni Domenico and 14-year-old Lorenzo. They frescoed the Kaisersaal salon and were then invited to deliver a design for the grandiose entrance staircase (Treppenhaus) designed by Balthasar Neumann. It is a massive ceiling fresco at 677 square meters, and was completed in November 1753.

Residenz, Würzburg
Fresco detail, Residenz, Würzburg

Tiepolo included several portraits in the Europe section of this fresco, including a self-portrait; one of his son Giandomenico; one of the prince-bishop von Greiffenklau; one of the painter Antonio Bossi; and one of the architect, Balthasar Neumann.

Self-portrait of Tiepolo with his son Giandomenico in the fresco detail, Residenz, Würzburg

Tiepolo returned to Venice in 1753. He was now in demand locally, as well as abroad where he was elected President of the Academy of Padua. He went on to complete theatrical frescoes for churches; the Triumph of Faith for the Chiesa della Pietà; panel frescos for Ca’ Rezzonico (which now also houses his ceiling fresco from the Palazzo Barbarigo); and paintings for patrician villas in the Venetian countryside, such as Villa Valmarana in Vicenza and an elaborate panegyric ceiling for the Villa Pisani in Stra. In some celebrated frescoes at the Palazzo Labia, he depicted two scenes from the life of Cleopatra: Meeting of Anthony and Cleopatra and Banquet of Cleopatra, as well as, in a central ceiling fresco, the Triumph of Bellerophon over Time.

Ca’ Rezzonico, View of the Room of the Throne, 1757
Tiepolo, Allegory of Merit Accompanied by Nobility and Virtue, 1757
Fresco, Ca’ Rezzonico

Tiepolo’s last work in Italy was a commission for a noble Venetian family. He accepted the task of celebrating the last dream of power of the Pisani family , who had built their own belated but splendid Versailles in the Villa Pisani at Stra. In Tiepolo’s magnificent Apotheosis of the Pisani Family, the most attractive section is an array of children’s portraits and a frieze of male and female satyrs, which give a stamp of sensual existentialism to the decorative ensemble.

Tiepolo, The Apotheosis of the Pisani Family, 1761-62
Fresco, Villa Pisani, Stra
Detail of The Apotheosis of the Pisani Family, 1761-62
Fresco, Villa Pisani, Stra
Apollo (detail), Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo, Apollo and the Continents, 1752, Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What most people notice first about Tiepolo paintings are the colours. Pastels in complimentary schemes lend a soft, often romantic quality to otherwise active scenes. The use of dramatic poses and simultaneous narrative are reinforced by the tension inherent in the colour schemes, keeping the pictures lively and engaging. This combination of precision, apparent ease, and liveliness was referred to as sprezzatura, and the Tiepolo family came to define it as an artistic trait.

Tiepolo’s legacy includes over 800 paintings, 2,000 drawings, and two etching sets. There are also acres of luminous frescoes that carry his name that adorn many churches, villas, and palaces. With the death of Tiepolo, the golden age of Venetian art was over.

The face of Venetian sculpture did not change into Baroque until the mid 17th century. In fact, the late Mannerist style persisted even longer in Venetian sculpture than it did in Venetian painting.

Monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro, designed by Baldassare Longhena, with sculptures by Juste Le Court, Michele Fabris, Melchior Barthel and Francesco Cavrioli
1665-69, Marble and bronze
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

The sculptural decoration of the Pesaro mausoleum, which the nephew Leonardo Pesaro commissioned Baldassare Longhena to build, was carried out by Melchior Barthel, Juste Le Court with Francesco Cavrioli and Michele Fabris, known as Ongaro (the Hungarian). Le Court and Barthel, through their stylistic similarities, represent the new Baroque style. Cavrioli, called on to work on the two bronze skeletons supporting the two scrolls, was presumably chosen in view of his specialisation in this field. Michele Fabris, born in Bratislava, who had come to Venice around 1662, was given the task of carving the two dragons, symbols of eternity, which were evidently held to be appropriate to the sculptor’s taste and Northern background.

The Pesaro monument and its decoration takes on particular importance in the field of funerary sculpture in Venice at this time as a work that reflects the common ideas of the Baroque aesthetic which made the “stones speak”.

High altar, designed by Baldassaro Longhena, with sculpture by Juste Le Court, Clementi Molli, Melchior Barthel, Francesco Cavrioli, Bernardo Falconi and Claudio Perreau
1646-64, Marble
Church of San Pietro di Castello

This powerful composition, commissioned by the Senate, was erected in honour of the Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani. The altar statues offer us an overview of the sculpture of the period and illustrate the coexistence of different styles (style was evidently not a determining factor in Longhena’s choice of collaborators). Juste Le Court, now at the height of his maturity and prestige, carved the Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani and two angels flanking him on top, the St Paul (right, with the sword) and the three angels supporting the urn. The gestures of Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani and the two angels are represented with sober effectiveness.

Claudio Perreau, in his St John the Baptist (left), remains true to his classicizing leanings, while Francesco Cavrioli, in his two angels holding up the urn, reflects an attempt to turn the page and move toward the Baroque style. Melchior Barthel with his statues of St Mark (right) and St Peter (left, with the key) reveals a language close to that of Le Court. The three angels holding the urn in the back section are by Bernardo Falconi.

Baldassare Longhena was Venice’s answer to the high class of Roman baroque.

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

Architecturally the city is a baroque feast, exemplified by stunning buildings like the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Caʼ Pesaro and Ca’ Rezzonico, all works by Venetian architect Baldassare Longhena.

Longhena worked on numerous churches in Venice, and his work often coincided with that of other architects. This is the case with Giuseppe Sardi, who completed various of Longhena’s buildings and various of whose works were, in turn, completed by Longhena. But it was for those private clients with sensitivity, great wealth and an equal desire to glorify themselves that Longhena developed a new architectural vocabulary in his designs.

The history of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is well known. When the epidemic of plaque broke out, the Senate, inspired by the events of 1576 when Palladio erected the church of the Redentore on the Giudecca, decreed that a votive building would be constructed to the Virgin in hope of freeing Venice from the nightmare. In November, the three delegates appointed to investigate the matter reported that a suitable site had been found and that it would be opportune to employ an architect from outside Venice. However, on 13 April the following year, Longhena presented his project for an outstanding innovative octagonal building:

I have designed a church in a round form, the result of a new invention, never before built in Venice… as it is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, it came to me… to build it in a round form being in the form of a crown to be dedicated to the Virgin.

After having fought off the competition of two other projects, and after several months of uncertainty concerning the site, on 13 June the decision was taken to proceed with the construction. The church was completed in 1687, five years after Longhena’s death.

The basilica stands on the narrow finger of Punta della Dogana, between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, at the Bacino di San Marco, making the church visible when entering the Piazza San Marco from the water. Longhena demonstrated himself capable of exploiting brilliantly the site’s advantages. The church immediately became the visual focus of the entire system of the S. Marco basin and one of the strongest architectural symbols in the whole city.

The main façade is richly decorated by statues of the four evangelists recently attributed to Tommaso Rues.

Main entrance to Santa Maria della Salute
Evangelist Mark by Tommasso Rues at Santa Maria della Salute

While its external decoration and location capture the eye, the internal design itself is quite remarkable. The octagonal church, while ringed by a classic vocabulary, hearkens to Byzantine designs such as the Basilica of San Vitale.

The Baroque high altar arrangement, designed by Longhena himself, shelters an iconic Byzantine Madonna and Child of the 12th or 13th century, known as Panagia Mesopantitissa in Greek (“Madonna the mediator” or “Madonna the negotiator”) and came from Candia in 1669 after the fall of the city to the Ottomans. The statuary group at the high altar, depicting The Queen of Heaven expelling the Plague (1670) is a theatrical Baroque masterpiece by the Flemish sculptor Josse de Corte. It originally held Alessandro Varotari’s painting of the Virgin holding a church that the painter submitted with his architectural proposal.

High altar at Santa Maria della Salute
High Altar with the holy icon of Panagia Mesopantitisa

Palazzo Pesaro, like nearly all the major building enterprises of the 17th century, was being reconstructed in order to satisfy new decorative and entertainment requirements. The driving force at the beginning was Giovanni Pesaro, who became doge in 1658 but who had already by 1628 commissioned the task of homogenizing and renovating his home. The project was carried on by his nephew Leonardo and the most decisive years for the building were the 1660s and 1670s.

The palace that the Pesaro family had wished to be in proportion to their power and prestige is today one of the most imposing and massive edifices in the city.

Ca’ Pesaro, Venice, today Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (the Gallery of Modern Art)

Works began in 1659 starting from the landside; the courtyard, with its striking loggias, was completed by 1676; the splendid façade on the Grand Canal had already reached the second floor by 1679, but, on Longhena’s death in 1682, the palace was still unfinished. The Pesaro family entrusted its completion to Gian Antonio Gaspari who completed the renovations in 1710, according to the original designs.

Ca’ Pesaro courtyard
Interior of the Gallery of Modern Art, in Ca’ Pesaro
Interior of the Gallery of Modern Art, in Ca’ Pesaro

Ca’ Rezzonico stands on the right bank of the canal, at the point where it is joined by the Rio di San Barnaba. The site was previously occupied by two houses, visible in early paintings of Venice in 1500, which a century and a half later were in a sad state of decay. They belonged to the Bon family, one of Venice’s patrician clans. In 1649 the head of the family, Filippo Bon, a Procurator of the city and patron of the arts, decided to transform the two houses into a single large palazzo on the site.

The task of designing the new building was entrusted to Longhena. By 1661, the two residences had already been incorporated into a single building, where the Bon family took up residence.

The works were extended to the rear of the building after 1661, and in order to facilitate construction, in 1667, the Giudici del Piovego, allowed Filippo Bon private use of the quay on the Rio di San Barnaba, whose ending was also partially incorporated into the new building. Bon also purchased a house that faced onto this quay at the same time, which was promptly demolished “to make the new edifice of his mansion”.

The building work continued until 1682, when Longhena died. The state of the façade, built only to the height of the first piano nobile is documented in numerous works by Canaletto, Marieschi and other contemporary artists, who showed it incomplete.

The considerable costs sustained in building the new palazzo, which Filippo had intended would be the crowning glory of a century of successful business and the tangible sign of his family’s importance, had instead ruined the Bon family and Filippo himself was forced to close the building site, being unable even to provide for the maintenance of the constructed sections, which began to rapidly deteriorate.

In 1744, the Bon family sold the building to Giambattista Rezzonico, the head of a very wealthy family, originally from Lombardi, that traded in fabrics and owned a bank. An evaluation of the building by proto Antonio Mazzoni, ordered by the Provvedori di Comun, emphasised that the building, although having the “grandeur of an outstanding palazzo”, was to be considered a “disastrous, impractical building in constant, imminent danger of collapse”.

Giambattista Rezzonico appointed Giorgio Massari, the most celebrated architect then working in Venice, to rectify this situation and complete the construction. It is unclear what role Massari played in completing the building, whether he faithfully followed Longhena’s original plan, limiting himself to the its construction, or whether his client asked him to make significant alterations to the 17th century plan. There are aspects to the building that have a typical 18th century lightness.

Ca’ Rezzonico, today Museo del Settecento Veneziano (the Museum of 18th century Venice)

The Palazzo’s ceremonial rooms are located on the piano mobile. The largest and most impressive is the grand salon or ballroom, fourteen by twenty-four meters in size, at the rear of the building, This room, created by Massari, is of double height, and appears even higher because of the trompe l’oeil architecture painted on the walls and ceiling by Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna.

Ca’ Rezzonico ballroom
Trompe L’Oeil decoration of the ballroom ceiling by Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna

Ca’ Rezzonico is a particularly notable example of the 18th century Venetian baroque and rococo architecture and interior decoration, and, as the Museum of 18th century, displays paintings by the leading Venetian painters of the period, including Francesco Guardi and Giambattista Tiepolo.

View of the Room of the Nuptial Allegory,
Ca’ Rezzonico
Tiepolo, Nuptial Allegory, 1757
Fresco, Ca’ Rezzonico

Opera in Venice

It turns out we can thank the social and economic conditions in 17th century Venice for one of the most engaging and long-lasting forms of entertainment we know – the opera.

Marco Ricci, Rehearsal of an Opera, c. 1720, Oil on canvas

Theatre was already tremendously popular in Venice by the early 16th century. When performances were prohibited due to the crisis of the League of Cambrai, they continued on the island of Murano. A distinctive institution arose in the city, the Compagnie della Calza, prestigious social clubs for the patrician youth of the city, specialising in such entertainment. The first documented reference to them is in January 1442, performing in the house of Stai Balbi. Members were required to wear the brightly coloured hose (calze) of their societies. Their feasts included wedding banquets for members and other prominent citizens, as well as feasts for foreign dignitaries, who were sometimes made honorary members.

The Venetian cultural historian Giuseppe Tassini, describing the wedding festivities of Venetian nobility, writes of these youths, masked and dressed as allegorical figures, participating in comical and satirical performances, which included verses, and often song and dance. These so-called momarie, essentially derived from the theatre of antiquity, were mounted occasionally by the State itself for important official visitors. Beatrice d’Este described one in her honour in 1493.

In the 1560s and 1570s, the Venetian economy began to suffer under international economic pressures and the loss of its overseas territories, as well as the costly, nearly continuous and rarely successful wars with the Ottoman Empire. Throughout this period, the musical and concert life of the city, both public (in the churches, scuole, ospedali, for State occasions, patrician marriages, etc.) and in the private realm, nevertheless remained very active.

The revival of theatre in Venice can be dated to May 1607, when Gerolamo Priuli records the presence of a company of comedians performing for six or eight soldi per person at various city locations. A theatre was licenced to the patriciate Vendramins at San Salvador, near the Rialto, in 1622 and 1624, with performances again in 1630 and 1631 by the actor Scapino. By the 1630s, permanent theatres were established in the city.

The first operas, that is fully sung dramatic productions, emerged about 1600 from Italian Renaissance traditions of court entertainment. Like their spoken or partially sung predecessors, these performances, subsidised by the ruling dynasties of Florence, Mantua and Rome, were designed to celebrate special occasions. Presented before members of the court, in specially constructed theatres or palatial rooms, these works enjoyed lavish productions. No expense was spared in rendering them magnificent in every respect, fully worthy of the occasion and of their patrons reputations and influence. Although typically performed only once, many of these operas were memorialised through publication, and thus became permanent tributes to their patrons and to the occasions for which they were created.

The permission for the first theatre where opera would be regularly performed in a permanent building was granted to the noble Tron family in 1636 (for a 1637 opening with Andromeda). The Teatro Tron at San Cassiano was the first theatre in the world regularly presenting opera open to and financed through tickets purchased by the general public, with seasonal boxes acquired, beyond the cost of individual tickets, by leading families. Once established, Venice proved ideal for opera, given its resident composers, liberal traditions in publication and religious practice, and diverse audiences, and the extended Carnival celebrations from one day after Christmas until Lent, which provided a particularly busy season.

By 1678, the year of the opening of the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo (which exists again today as the Teatro Malibran), under the patronage of the Grimani, with a production of Vespasiano by the composer Carlo Pallavicino, nine such theatres operated in the city.

Teatro Malibran, Venice

By the mid 17th century, a Jesuit priest, Giovan Domenico Ottonelli, could distinguish this first, courtly phase of opera, “fatta ne’ palazzi de’ principi grandi, e d’altri signori secolari o ecclesiastici” (“performed in the palaces of great princes and other secular or ecclesiastical lords”), from a second one, which comprised those “cioe le fatte da que’ mercenarii musici che sono comedianti di professione” (“commercial musical productions put on by professional performers”) in public theatres. Although by the time of Ottonelli’s writing, such public theatres could be found in various Italian cities, the phenomenon was centred in Venice, where it had begun some fifteen years earlier.

The distinctiveness of the political, social and economic structure of Venice necessarily affected all of the arts, perhaps none more so than opera, for the particular organisation of the government – in which power was shared by a patrician class rather than wielded by a single ruler – promoted competition among aristocratic families. This competition was reflected, among other ways, in their rush to exploit the craze for opera that began to infect the city on the Lagoon, almost like the plague, in the late 1630s. Their aims were economic as well as political, and it was not uncommon for these families to be involved in commerce of various kinds: trade with continental Europe and the East, agriculture, banking. The construction of theatres for the purpose of producing dramatic entertainment for a paying audience – either seasonal boxholders or single-performance attendees – were well within the realm of possibility for patrician-entrepreneurs by the late 16th century.

Tourist city par excellence, with a tradition of elaborate Carnival celebrations, Venice had long hosted a variety of theatrical entertainment, some of which was performed by the members of the patriciate themselves, in academies, others by travelling companies of comici. Indeed, a number of theatres were constructed during the 16th and early 17th centuries by patrician families, specifically to accommodate such performances. And although these theatres were torn down, destroyed by fire or otherwise disappeared in the interim, they offered a blueprint for their heirs, the Venetian opera houses. What we know of the financial arrangements between the proprietors and the travelling companies of comici in the 16th century indicates that, in this respect too, they provided a model for opera. In exchange for permission to perform in the theatre, the company assumed complete responsibility for the production, diving with the owners the receipts from the rental of boxes and sale of individual tickets. Venetian public opera, then, was a rather natural offshoot of a set of historical and social circumstances that had been unfolding for the better part of a century.

Thanks to abundant contemporary documentation, we can actually point to the specific date and place of the first Venetian opera. It was in 1637, during Carnival, at the Teatro San Cassiano, that a small band of “foreign” performers (forestieri from Rome and Emilia), led by Benedetto Ferrari, a composer, librettist and theorbo player, produced the first officially recognised Venetian opera, Andromeda, based on the Ovidian tale. We learn this from Cristoforo Ivanovich, the first historian of the genre, the appendix of whose book, Minerva al tavolino (1681) contains an elaborate account of the first years of the Venetian opera.

Most of Ivanovich’s information about this first opera production is drawn from the lengthy preface to the libretto of Andromeda, signed by the printer Bariletti, which was published several months after the performance. From it, Ivanovich learned that Ferrari’s company comprised seven members who provided virtually everything necessary for the production, from composing the libretto and musical setting, to singing the various roles, often more than one, and playing in the orchestra. The number of cast and orchestra members was augmented by musicians borrowed from the Basilica of San Marco, the primary musical institution of Venice. The system of supporting this undertaking resembled the one governing the earlier public performances of the comici, and it became characteristic of opera production well into the 18th century and even beyond. It involved a seasonal contract between the theatre owner and an impresario or society that supplied or commissioned the libretto and score, and hired the performers and other workers. Expenses were offset and profits earned by receipts from the rental of boxes and by ticket sales.

As recounted by Ivanovich, Andromeda proved so successful that it inspired a return engagement by Ferrari’s troupe the following Carnival season, in 1638, for a second work, La maga fulminate, by the same authors, at the same theatre. Progress was henceforth unstoppable. The next year, 1639, a second theatre, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, was converted for use as an opera house. Its patrician owners, the Grimani family, tried to outdo the competition at San Cassiano by hiring away Ferrari’s company and presenting not one but two operas in its inaugural season (a distinctive pattern maintained by the theatre, fairly consistently, throughout the 17th century). The theatre remained the largest and most regularly active until the opening of the second Grimani theatre in 1678, San Giovanni Grisostomo. In the meantime, a new company was formed at San Cassiano, this one headed by a local musician, Francesco Cavalli, organist at San Marco, who thus began his important career in opera. The first of his nearly thirty operas, Le nozze di Peleo e di Teti, on a libretto by Orazio Persiani, co-manager of the company, was performed in 1339. Cavalli maintained an uninterrupted relationship with San Cassiano until it closed in 1646. His dual role as a composer and impresario was fundamental to the establishment of opera as a genre in Venice.

Anonymous, Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, 1709, Engraving

The opening of two additional theatres followed in rapid succession: the Giustiniani family’s San Moise in 1640, which, like its predecessors, was a converted prose theatre, and the Novissimo in 1641. The latter, as indicated by its name, was unique among Venetian theatres in being newly built, probably on a design by Giacomo Torelli from Fano, engineer to the doge, who was to become the most innovative scenographer of the time. The Novissimo was also unique in that it was the first theatre not designed for the fame or profit or a single family but, rather, for a society of noblemen, whose aims may have been more recreational and academic than commercial. Many of them belonged to the most important Venetian academy of the time, the Accademia degli Incogniti, a group of prolific writers that supported and participated in the opera milieu as an expression of their Venetian patriotism. Although short-lived (it was open for only five seasons), the Novissimo boasted the most spectacular opera productions yet seen in Venice. An elaborate advertising campaign undertaken by members of the Incogniti on behalf of the Novissimo proclaimed the marvels of its productions far and wide, in descriptive publications that attempted to reproduce them in words as well as by visual means, in prints, providing a lustre that could not help rubbing off on Venetian opera in general. Incogniti publicity was responsible, among other things, for crowning the first prima donna in opera history: Anna Renzi. Perhaps her most-lasting contribution to music history was her creation of the role of Ottavia in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea). According to these publications, issued during early 1640s, audiences were drawn to Venice in ever greater numbers specifically to take in the opera scene.

Antonio Codognato, View of the Magnificent Scenery and Lighting of the Teatro San Samuele, 1753, Engraving
Gabriel_Bella, View of the Magnificent Scenery and Lighting of Teatro San Samuele, 1780s, Oil on canvas

As the number of Venetian theatres increased, so too did the number of operas produced in a single season, from one in 1637 and 1638, to five in 1640 and 1641, reaching a high point of seven in 1642, a season during which, atypically, three of the four theatres mounted two operas each. Although three more theatres opened during the next two decades – Santi Apostoli (1649-52), Sant’Apollinare (1651-57, 1660) and San Salvatore at San Luca (1661), for a total of seven – there were thereafter never more than four in operation during a single season, the more usual number being two or three, yet there was no turning back. In just five years, opera had become established as an important annual ritual, a crucial component of the Venetian carnival season.

In case you are wondering, Teatro La Fenice didn’t open until 1792.

In addition to whetting the appetites of an avid audience, this burgeoning opera scene put extraordinary pressure on the owners and managers of the theatres, who were forced to compete in their search for personnel (librettists and composers, singers and instrumentalists) to supply the growing demand for new productions. Such personnel were not easily found. Local talent had to be supplemented with forestieri, and theatre owners tended to rely on many of the same performers, again and again. Indeed, during these years it was no uncommon to find the same company operating in more than one venue in the same season.

In fact, the list of composers and librettists of the first five years of opera in Venice is revealingly short: seven composers and eleven librettists were responsible for the first twenty-one operas. Most of the composers became operatic journeymen, producing one or more operas per year on a regular basis, at least for several consecutive seasons, but a few others, hired for a single season, ended up producing only one work for Venice, before moving on or returning to careers elsewhere. By 1645, even Ferrari himself had left Venice for more stable climes. But in the early 1640s, the demand was such that even the seventy-year-old Monteverdi was lured out of retirement to participate in the enterprise: we owe his great late works Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea for Santi Giovanni e Paolo to the widespread passion for opera during that time.

Claudio Monteverdi, oil painting by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1630

By far the most important composer of this entire period, however, was Francesco Cavalli, a pupil of Monteverdi, who, in collaboration with more than a dozen different librettists, was to supply operas for a variety of theatres for nearly thirty years (1639-68). His annual collaboration with the librettist Giovanni Faustini, who had assumed impresario responsibilities at three different theatres, began in 1642 and lasted a decade, until the librettist’s premature death in 1652. In their ten collaborations, written quickly to satisfy a steady demand, composer and librettist developed a set of musico-dramatic conventions that facilitated composition as well as reception, making the subsequent development of Venetian opera possible.

These conventions affected every aspect of the text and its musical setting, from choice of subject matter and characters, to plot structure and the form of the poetry; from the associations between characters and vocal ranges and the role of the orchestra, to the distinctions between recitative and aria. The latter was to show the greatest change over the course of the century, in the heightened contrast between them, with arias taking up an increasing proportion of operas as singers assumed ever greater significance in the productions.

When Faustini died, in the middle of the 1652 season, his elder brother, Marco, a lawyer, immediately assumed his duties as impresario. This coincided with an important turning point in the history of Venetian public opera. Having become fully established as an annual and essential part of the Venetian carnival season, it was also on its way to becoming pan-Italian. Whereas operas of the 1640s had circulated to some extent, it was especially after the middle of the century that such circulation began to bear fruit, as public opera houses began to open to accommodate not only the travelling productions from Venice, but indigenous ones as well, in Genoa, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Naples and elsewhere.

Giovanni Faustini’s death also coincided with a change in the nature of theatre management. The business of running an opera house, formerly undertaken by those actually involved in the production – composers, librettists, scenographers – had become increasingly complex. Indeed, the success of Marco Faustini as an impresario must have been facilitated by his legal training. In addition to negotiating complex rental agreements with the patrician owners of the various theatres he managed, Faustini spent months locating and contracting performers for upcoming seasons. Although he could depend on local musicians to serve in the orchestra, singers were more difficult to find. Through a network of agents in various cities, some of them singers themselves, he was able to identify and hire the best singers available.

Finally, Giovanni Faustini’s death marked a new stage in Cavalli’s career, as it forced him to look to other librettists to provide him with text. Two of them, Nicolo Minato and Aurelio Aureli, became leading librettists of the post-Faustini era, collaborating not only with Cavalli, but with members of a younger generation as well. Perhaps the most notable development of this period was a change in the conventional language for opera, marked especially by an increase in the number of arias, from about a dozen at mid-century to as many as sixty in the final decades of the century, sometimes as many as ten per singer. Eventually these arias migrated to the ends of scenes, to minimise the interruptive effect of the applause they were designed to elicit.

The opening of two additional theatres caps this stage of development. Together, Sant’Angelo (1677) and San Giovanni Grisostomo (1678) epitomise the state of Venetian public opera in the final two decades of the century. The much smaller Teatro Sant’Angelo belonged to two families, neither regarding the theatre as crucial to their family’s standing. The owners remained completely removed from artistic decisions, leaving them in the hands of the renegade impresario Francesco Santurini, a commoner who had earlier broken with tradition by reducing ticket prices in order to attract a larger audience, hoping thereby to increase profits. This seems to have backfired, because the theatre regularly operated at a substantial deficit. Nevertheless, it continued to mount productions throughout the century, responding no doubt to a government decree of the 1690s that required theatres to operate even in deficit so as not to spoil Carnival. San Giovanni Grisostomo, on the other hand, the grandest opera house of the century, represented the final investment in theatre of the Grimani family, whose steady infusion of cash – and direct involvement in the day-to-day running of the theatre – ensured that the production maintained the decorum and magnificence appropriate to their patrician status.

The model of public opera developed in Venice in the 17th century continued into the 18th. Although the nature of the operas themselves changed (reforms promulgated by members of the Accademia degli Arcadi in Rome called for simpler plots and the purging of comic elements) many of the original conventions persisted: theatres continued to be run either by individual families (San Giovanni Grisostomo) or impresarios (Sant’Angelo). Indeed, Antonio Vivaldi, probably the most important and prolific Venetian composer of the 18th century, made his reputation in part as the impresario of Sant’Angelo, where he produced operas regularly – from 1714 until at least 1726. During this time, some new theatres opened, while others closed, temporarily or permanently; the opera season regularly extended beyond Carnival to include autumn and sometimes even spring performances, bringing the number of operas performed in some years to as many as twelve. Increasingly, Venetian theatres had to compete for librettos, composers and singers not only among themselves, but with opera houses that had sprung up throughout Italy and beyond: in Hamburg, London, Paris. Instead of new works, impresarios often resorted to new settings of old librettos. (Some of the most distinguished librettos of the Arcadian authors Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio received as many as fifty different settings.)

Tomaso Albinoni, Statira, Libretto published by Il Rossi, Rome, 1726
Antonio Lotti, Teuzzone, Libretto published by Marino Rossetti, Venice, 1707

Some of the most prolific composers – among them Albinoni, Gasparini, Pollarolo and Vivaldi – were established local figures, but their careers were also recognised abroad. And virtually all of the prime donne and primi uomini with international reputations – the Bordonis, Cuzzonis, Senesinos – spent significant portions of their careers on the Venetian stage, even if they did not make their debuts on the Lagoon. In keeping with its position at the crossroads of opera-based commerce, Venice was also home to a tradition of operatic satire, literary as well as visual. Benedetto Marcello’s treatise, Il teatro alla moda (1720), in its exaggerated critique of every aspect of opera – including singers, composers and librettos – exposes some of the genre’s most notorious foibles. And Antonio Maria Zanetti’s delightful caricatures of singers – the likes of Bordoni, Bernacchi and others – indicate the extent to which the vocal pyrotechnics of the favourite singers had captured the imagination of audiences.

Anton Maria Zanetti, the Elder – The soprano Antonio Maria Bernacchi
Anton Maria Zanetti, the Elder – Gaetano Majorano, called Caffarelli or Caffariello
Anton Maria Zanetti, the Elder – Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli or Farinello
Anton Maria Zanetti, the Elder – Giustina Turcotti

Already by the end of the 17th century, the model of public opera developed in Venice was no longer exclusively Venetian, but the economic and social forces that had fostered its development continued to shape the art. The formula established in Venice balanced economic considerations against satisfying audience taste. Success depended on the ability to identify or anticipate the desires of the audience and to satisfy these as cheaply as possible. This approach has persisted to the present day, although back then the audience taste was for new operas, whereas today it is for new productions. Then, as now, theatres ran at a deficit, relaying on the largesse of a special patron to stay solvent, and then, as now, a star cast, a new prima donna, could ensure the success of a new production.

Venice remained the centre of opera through the first decades of the 18th century.

Rosalba Carriera, Portrait of the Singer Faustina Bordoni Hasse (one of the most renowned singers of her day), 1730s, Pastel

Music for Beary Ears

Little bears are still celebrating Make Music Day with music inspired by toys! There is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, Bayer’s The Fairy Doll, Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque, Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony and more!

Attending a performance of The Nutcracker has now become a beary annual tradition.

Puffles and Honey at the Royal Opera House for The Nutcracker in 2017

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is a fond depiction of Christmas à la Russe drawn straight from “Russian children’s memories”. It sketches familiar drawing-room rituals and features a sparkling decorated tree, delicious candies, brave toy soldiers, and, as the scenario puts it, a scrumptious “enchanted palace from the land of confectionary sweets”.

Tchaikovsky included a number of unconventional instruments and effects, such as the ethereal celesta, to create the magical setting. With a sound straight from fairyland, the celeste is the perfect accompaniment to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo in The Nutcracker.

The music score for the less fantastical first-act party scene includes a trumpet, drums, cuckoo, quail and cymbals. Toy ones of course. Sir Simon Rattle calls The Nutcracker one of the great miracles in music, and he instructs the orchestra to make “party noises” with toy guns, bells and other nicknacks. What fun!

No doubt Tchaikovsky would have included a pink guitar if he had one!

The Fairy Doll, or Die Puppenfee, was premiered at the Vienna Court Opera on the 4th October 1888. The ballet owes its inspiration to E.T.A Hoffman’s 1815 story The Sandman in which a mechanical doll comes to life. E.T.A Hoffman is also the author of The Nutcracker, if you forgot.

The Sandman also inspired Offenbach to compose the Tales of Hoffman and Delibes to write the score for Coppélia, while The Fairy Doll was in turn an inspiration for La Boutique Fantasque.

Composed by the Austrian Josef Bayer the score has a regimental music flavour and was to prove the greatest ballet success for the Vienna Court Opera ever; still being performed to this day. It was choreographed by the Court ballet master Joseph Hassreiter and Camilla Pagliero was the first to dance the role of the Fairy Doll.

The curtain rises on a toy shop where the proprietor is mending a doll’s head, various customers and trades people arrive. An English family, a Scottish family, a child with a broken doll, they are shown Ma-Ma- Pa-Pa dolls, Chinese and Spanish dolls as well as Tyroleans, harlequins, drumming bunny dolls and finally the Fairy Doll.

The English family are enraptured by the Fairy Doll and place an order to buy her and arrange for her to be delivered. They leave and the shop closes for the night.

As midnight strikes the shop magically comes alive (obviously!) and all the dolls with pulcinellas playing tiny cymbals dance the Fairy Doll waltz followed by a triumphal march with massed battalions of drumming bunny dolls and all join in a sparkling gallop gathering around the Fairy Doll.

Disturbed by the noise the shopkeeper now rushes in but finds everything in order, he stands puzzled as the ballet ends with a tableau of dolls around their fairy queen.

Anna Pavlova danced her version of The Fairy Doll on her worldwide tours in the 1920’s adding music from Drigo’s Harlequinade and the famous Serenade pas de trios.

Coppélia is one of those rare artistic creations, a comic ballet masterpiece. First performed in 1870 before Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie at the Paris Opera, it was an immediate success with the 15 year old ballerina Bozzacchi as Swanhilda.

Dr Coppelius is a lonely old alchemist who lives in a two-storey house on the edge of the village square. He is regarded by the villagers as a sorcerer, someone who conducts strange experiments in his laboratory. They fear him and ridicule him.

Coppélia is his “daughter”, a mechanical doll who is so lifelike she is able to fool the villagers into believing she is alive. Dr Coppelius is so enamoured of this doll that he tries to use magic to bring her to life.

The curtain raises as the villagers are preparing for the Harvest Festival. The official party, led by the Town Councillor, celebrates the gift of a bell by the Seigneur and his Lady. The celebration is momentarily interrupted by Dr Coppelius, whose mysterious “daughter” causes a quarrel between Swanilda and her fiancé Franz. The villagers, after continuing the celebrations with a czardas, disperse to await the Harvest Festival the following morning. Meanwhile, Swanilda and her friends investigate the strange house of Dr Coppélius.

Swanilda and her friends search for the girl they saw earlier on the balcony. However, Dr Coppelius returns and chases them – except for Swanilda, who hides – from his house. Franz arrives and Dr Coppelius wickedly endeavours to take his spirit from him and put it into the body of his “daughter”, his most prized possession. Coppelius is fooled by Swanilda and thinks his mechanical doll has come to life. The lovers are reunited and Dr Coppelius is left broken-hearted.

The day of the celebration has arrived and the couples are married. Led by the child-god Hymen, the gathered villagers celebrate the pageant day with joyous dancing.

La Boutique Fantasque should properly be attributed to two composers. Respighi is often credited as the composer, but the music was actually written by Rossini, and the later ballet was the product of a distinguished collaboration. It was apparently Respighi who in 1919 approached Léonide Massine, then choreographer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with a proposal to create a ballet based on piano pieces by Rossini. Diaghilev liked the idea, especially as competition to The Fairy Doll, a libretto was prepared by the painter André Derain, Respighi chose and orchestrated a number of Rossini’s short piano pieces, and the Ballets Russes gave the first performance of La boutique fantasque (The Fantastic Toyshop) in London on June 5, 1919. It has remained an audience favorite ever since.

In Derain’s libretto, set in France in 1860, a master toy maker has created a collection of splendid dancing dolls, which are displayed in his shop window. The most striking of these dolls is a pair of can-can dancers, a man and a woman who dance together in the window during the day and who are in love with each other when the shop is closed at night. People passing on the street admire the dolls, and eventually an American family decides to buy the male dancer, a Russian family the female dancer – they will return the next day to pick up the dolls and thus unknowingly separate the lovers. That night the horrified dolls decide to resist, and when the families return the next day to pick up their dolls, they are met with a full-scale revolt led by Cossack dolls armed with bayonets. Eventually, the buyers retreat and give up their purchases, and La Boutique Fantasque concludes as the toy maker and his dolls dance happily behind the shop windows 🙂

We think of Rossini as the composer of operas, but he wrote his final opera, William Tell, in 1829 when he was 37, and then retired. Rossini lived in Paris for nearly 40 more years, and during that time he was famous for his Sunday soirées during which he would entertain guests with food (Rossini was a gourmet cook – he invented Tournedos Rossini), witty conversation and music. Rossini may have stopped writing operas, but he did not stop composing, and over those final 40 years he wrote a vast number of songs and short piano pieces that he collected under the title Sins of Old Age. Rossini would not allow any of these 13 volumes of music to be published during his lifetime, and they did not really begin to appear until the 1950s, though the music circulated among Rossini’s friends and other music-lovers. It is a measure of Respighi’s awareness that he knew and loved these pieces long before they were published.

For La Boutique Fantasque, Respighi orchestrated eight of these movements, pressing them into service to accompany the ballet’s action, and he deserves much of the credit here, for his orchestrations are witty, colorful and light – perfectly suited to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the ballet. Respighi drew some of these movements from one of the collections of pieces that Rossini had given the (utterly characteristic) title Hors d’oeuvre: radishes, sardines, gherkins, almonds, vinegar and oil. From the full ballet score Respighi assembled the suite of eight movements. The Overture (cast as a march) leads to the Tarantella (which depicts a pair of Italian dancers), a Mazurka (danced by playing cards in the ballet) and a Danse cosaque that introduces the dolls that will come to rescue. The Can-can is the dance of the two elegant dolls that will be threatened with separation, the Valse lente accompanies the sale of the two can-can dancers, the Nocturne is the music of the plot and concluding Galop celebrates the final triumph of the dolls.

Once attributed to Josef Haydn as well as his lesser-known brother, Michael, the Toy Symphony in now credited to Leopold Mozart (though some point out that Mozart’s version may be based on a tune by the 18th century Benedictine Monk Edmund Angerer). True to its name, this work calls for toy cuckoos, nightingales, ratchets, a drum and a trumpet.

The elder Mozart uses sleigh bells in his equally delightful Musical Sleigh Ride.

We’ll finnish with Victor Herbert’s March Of The Toys from Babes in Toyland.

Come back to the toys your childhood knew
For we are true, whatever you do
We’re waiting to play the same old way
Through night and day, though you are gray, we’ll wait for aye!
Come join us as we march along
A hundred strong, And sing our song!
Forget life’s cares, life’s snares
And be a child, and be a child once more.

St Petersburg Ballet’s Swan Lake

Arguably the world’s most loved ballet, Swan Lake is also the most powerful of all Russian ballets. The version we know today derives from the production choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to Tchaikovsky’s music and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1895.

But Swan Lake also had another, earlier history. Tchaikovsky had originally been commissioned to compose the score in Moscow in the mid-1870s by one Vladimir Begichev, who was in charge of repertory at the city’s Bolshoi Theater. Begichev’s wife ran an influential Moscow literary salon frequented by Tchaikovsky, who also tutored the couple’s son in music. Discussions at their home and at Ostrovsky’s Artists’ Circle, another literary and artistic club founded in the 1860s, had already inspired a new, self-consciously Russian ballet entitled The Fern based on a folktale recorded by Gogol: Moscow’s back-to-the-people version of Saint-Léon’s Humpbacked Horse, but apparently undistinguished.

We don’t know who wrote the libretto for Swan Lake, although it may have been Begichev and it was probably drawn from German folk and fairy-tale sources and perhaps influenced by Wagner’s Lohengrin. But the ballet also had roots in Tchaikovsky’s family life: some years earlier he had composed music for a children’s ballet about The Lake of Swans, which he and his extended family liked to perform in “house performances” later warmly remembered by his niece and nephew and featuring large wooden rocking swans. It was a fitting backdrop for a new Russian ballet recalling, however faintly, the domestic and estate settings of old serf ballets. The Moscow production had choreography by Julius Reisinger, a second-rate ballet master imported from Europe, but the lead role was not performed (as was now customary in St. Petersburg) by a foreign star: Odette was first danced by the ballerina Pelagia Karpakova and then by Anna Sobeshchanskaya.

This Moscow Swan Lake, moreover, bore only a passing resemblance to Petipa and Ivanov’s later St. Petersburg production. The outline of the ballet is familiar, but the Moscow original was more complicated: dark, violent and tragic. Steeped in Romanticism, the ballet tells the story of a beautiful girl, Odette, trapped in the form of a swan. Tormented and pursued by an evil stepmother in the guise of an owl and demon sorcerer, she lives with a flock of similarly bewitched young maidens in a lake of tears. By day they are swans but by night they are set free to dance in the nearby ruins. Only marriage can break the spell that binds Odette to her watery fate, but when Prince Siegfried falls in love with her, the stepmother tricks him: an imposter in black seduces the prince, who swears his undying devotion to this glamorous fake, thus betraying the real Odette and dooming her to eternal captivity.

Realizing his mistake, Siegfried begs her forgiveness, but — and this is the crux of the difference from later productions — it is too late. A crashing storm and terrible flood signal doom, with great undulating (canvas) waves and “an unimaginable din and uproar” that resembled “the explosion of a powder magazine” (and here a strong whiff of gunpowder filled the theater). In desperation the prince tears off Odette’s crown, which is her only protection from the evil owl, and, consumed in guilt and grief, the erstwhile lovers are swept into the waters and drowned. There is no redemptive apotheosis, as there later would be, but instead a vision of a cruel and indifferent fate: the lovers perish and the moon shines through the clouds “and on the calm lake appears a band of white swans.”

This ballet had its premiere in 1877 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. The music was well received (although some grumbled it was too lush and operatic and thus ill-suited for ballet), but the choreography was roundly panned and went through several versions and many hands before the ballet was finally retired from the repertory in 1883, a victim of drastic cutbacks in the theater’s budget. It disappeared for nearly ten years. Indeed, Tchaikovsky never saw it again: he and Vsevolozhsky had discussed a revival, but in 1893, before it could be produced, the composer died unexpectedly. The following year Lev Ivanov fashioned brand-new choreography for the second lakeside act for a memorial concert in St. Petersburg produced by Vsevolozhsky in honor of Tchaikovsky. Plans for a new production of the entire work proceeded, and Vsevolozhsky wrote to Modest asking him to work on a new libretto: “I hope you will succeed in avoiding the flood of the last act. It is trite and would go badly on our stage.”

Thus began a series of far-reaching revisions. Modest kept the flood but modified the ending, introducing a melodramatic double suicide: Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried stabs himself. In subsequent revisions things got softer and sweeter. Vsevolozhsky and Petipa excised the storm and flood and — building on Modest’s ending — had the lovers jump into the lake together and capped the ballet with the now-familiar heavenly apotheosis: “in the clouds, seated on huge swans, appear Siegfried and Odette.” The music was reworked by the Italian composer Riccardo Drigo (he had conducted the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty), who was asked to alter and shorten the score: as the scholar Roland John Wiley has shown, he lightened the orchestration, cut certain passages and added others, and (perhaps inadvertently) dismantled the tonal structure of Tchaikovsky’s original, giving the ballet an easier and less discordant feel. The music for the storm scene was simply deleted. The choreography was no less cobbled: Petipa, whose poor health had been exacerbated by the death of his daughter and other family difficulties, took responsibility for the court scenes but delegated the more lyrical and introspective lakeside dances to his Russian colleague Ivanov. This division of labor, however, turned out to be fortuitous: the enduring success of the ballet owes much to the tension between Petipa and Ivanov’s contrasting choreographic styles.

Consider Ivanov’s dances for the moonlit lakeside scene when the swans first appear as women, freed by the night and led by Odette, whose position is marked by her bejeweled crown. Siegfried and Odette meet; she tells her story and they confront the threatening sorcerer von Rothbart. The floor then clears for the entrance of the swans. Recalling Petipa’s shades in La Bayadère, they come one by one, single file, from the upstage corner in a series of simple repetitive steps and weave a serpentine pattern until they are ranked across the stage in straight, symmetrical lines. From this moment, however, a different mood takes hold: Ivanov sends the swans into a series of sculptural patterns that carve through the space, break apart, and recombine. The vocabulary is simple and clear — no more than a few plain-verse steps — with none of the wit or decorative embellishments that might draw the eye to a particular dancer.

This scene is often held up as the greatest possible achievement for a corps de ballet: properly performed, the dancers seem to move as one, and audiences today still marvel at how “together” they are. It is often assumed, moreover, that they are so together because each dancer has been trained meticulously to calibrate her movements to those of her neighbor. But this is not really how it works. Ivanov’s swans are not an assembly line or human machine, nor even a closely integrated community: they are an ensemble created by music. His steps do not so much fit the music as allow a dancer to find the phrase and sustain it in movement, making her way into the sound rather than moving smoothly across its surface. The unity is not “out” to one’s neighbors, but paradoxically a turning “in” and away; it is a togetherness based on musical and physical introspection, the polar opposite of show or ceremony. This is why the dance has such a silent, self-reflective feel.

It is not that the stage is quiet or the choreography sparse: Ivanov’s initial twenty-four swans are soon joined by twelve cygnets (children, usually left out of today’s productions) and by soloists until as many as forty dancers fill the stage. Yet no matter the crowds and the choreography’s increasing demands and complexity, the dancers never break order or rank; nor do they lose their discipline and inner focus. Moreover, they never lose their spatial and physical — or musical — relationship to Odette, their queen. They are her likeness, and their movements and patterns mirror and reflect her own: as they shadow her, they become an outward manifestation of her inner life.

This is even true in the pas de deux. Today we often think of this dance as a love story, but in 1895 it was more of a first-person soliloquy: Odette’s story. At the beginning of the scene, as we have seen, Odette relates her sad tale in mime; she then repeats it here, abstracted in movement, in her dance with Prince Siegfried. This pas de deux was not an impassioned Romeo-and-Juliet-style duet — in fact, it was not a pas de deux at all, but instead a ménage à trios: Siegfried was originally performed by Pavel Gerdt, who was apparently too old to manage the partnering alone, so Benno (Siegfried’s friend) danced with Odette too. Any love interest was thus diluted: Siegfried and Benno were there to lift and support Odette and to allow her feelings to fully emerge. This was a kind of love, to be sure, but more courtly than romantic, an idealization of woman rather than of feelings.

The dance begins as Odette descends gracefully to the ground in an arpeggio of movement (to a delicate harp cadenza), her body folded over on itself and her face hidden beneath her long, wing-like arms. As the first notes of the violin solo begin, her partner lifts her arm and literally unfolds her body as she rises up to full pointe. As she moves, he seems to disappear: it is just her and the long legato phrases of the violin. If audiences experience this dance as love, it is the harmony between Odette and the music, not her relationship with Siegfried, that inspires the feeling. Fittingly, the dance ends not in embrace but instead with Odette plunged into a deep supported arabesque or fallen with arms folded over on herself, head down, and the corps de ballet arrayed behind her, similarly draped.

Even as the dance opens out again — with solos, the arm-plaited “four little swans”, and a rushing coda — Odette’s self-absorption intensifies. No matter how bravura the demands (and there are some very difficult passages), the steps are designed as a kind of inverse showing off: small, quick movements requiring steely discipline and restraint — steps that force a ballerina to pull into herself and the music, rather than flashing out to the audience. The ballerina role was danced by the Italian Pierina Legnani, whose thick legs and fluid, strong technique — not to mention the ropes of pearls she liked to wear over her costume — made her an unlikely interpreter for Ivanov’s pure and lucid choreography. But in fact her impressive range and flexibility and (as many observers put it) the “plastique” of her dancing were crucial to the ballet’s success. As one critic noted: “It was as if Legnani were actually experiencing these moments, filled with poetic melancholy.”

The contrast between Ivanov’s “white” lakeside scenes and Petipa’s own architectonic and fiercely difficult dances for the court scenes could not have been sharper (it is Petipa’s black swan who executes the famous thirty-two fouettés — another Italian trick). It was a difference of style but also of ideas. In Petipa’s lexicon the individual is ennobled through fine taste and eloquence, grace and manners; the flamboyant, black Odile appears evil because she corrupts classical technique with her stylishly exaggerated bravura and false eloquence. Her movements are too skilled and alluring, lacking discernment and bordering on crass. Petipa’s choreography enshrined hierarchy and order, refinement and elegance — not as a set of repressive or stifling rules but as a necessary condition for beauty and art. Ivanov submitted to this aesthetic but also undercut it: there was a solvent in his dances, a yearning to break patterns and discard ornament in favor of a simpler grammar that might, in its most concentrated and lyrical forms, capture something more intimate and interior. He was interested in the inner sanctuaries—the private Russian chambers—of Petipa’s grand and marble-faced aesthetic.

Swan Lake had no successor: it stood alone in the repertory, not only for what it was but for where it came from. It was a product of Moscow and St. Petersburg, of the 1870s and the 1890s. Its fractured history and truncated, rearranged text, choreographed in fits and starts by Ivanov and Petipa after Tchaikovsky’s death, captures something of the competing forces and extraordinary invention shaping ballet at the time. Swan Lake, moreover, was no féerie but instead a full-blown Romantic tragedy, even in its gentler St. Petersburg form. It was not Petipa’s greatest work; that distinction rests firmly with The Sleeping Beauty. But if Beauty summoned forth an idealized classical and courtly past and was itself an exemplary monument to Imperial style, Ivanov’s lakeside dances in Swan Lake conjured the possibility of a perfect future in which love exists out of time and dancers are joined in a pure, plastic, and musical art. Together these two ballets stand as pillars marking ballet’s place as an Imperial Russian art.

Little bears are waiting to see Swan Lake with the St Petersburg Ballet Company. We last enjoyed St Petersburg Ballet’s Swan Lake on 23 July 2004.

Poster of the 2004 Australian Tour

Founded by Konstantin Tachkin in 1994, the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre travels internationally performing classical masterpieces from its repertoire including Swan Lake, Giselle, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty and gives about 200 performances every year. The company has no government funding and takes no risks with its conservative repertoire. This is the sixth Australian tour for the company, with previous Australian tours in 2016, 2015 2013, 2004 and 2000.

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet dancers are mainly recent graduates from Russian ballet schools. It means low salaries, and also a visible difference between the skill and experience of the corps de ballet dancers and the prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova.

Given the exigencies of touring with 65-70 members, the company’s productions are strictly no-frills in terms of sets and costumes and are often performed to recorded music. The absence of a live symphony orchestra detracted somewhat from the experience as did the small stage at His Majesty’s. Some of the amazing leaps that characterise Russian dancers had to be cut short. Still, the costumes are fresh, well-designed and colourful, and the sets are impressive enough. Something the audience doesn’t see is the many pairs of pointe shoes required for the performance.

Prima Ballerina Irina Kolesnikova has about 25 pairs of pointe shoes on tour with her, most of which are used or “broken in”. She chooses a pair depending on the ballet she will be dancing, the climate of the city she is in and the condition of her feet at the time. She will never introduce a new pair of pointes during a performance, only at a class, where she can wear them for short periods of time. She sets her favourite shoes — the ones that are “just right” — aside for special performances, such as opening nights.

For Swan Lake, Kolesnikova uses an older pair of pointe shoes for the white acts because they are more relaxed on her feet and she is aiming for a more emotional, sinuous movement. For the black swan acts, she prefers to have more tension in her feet.

Irina Kolesnikova joined St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in 1998 when she was 18 years old.

Irina Kolesnikova

Kolesnikova was training as a gymnast when her coach urged her to audition for the famous Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. On the second attempt, she won a place and at nine years old her childhood ended, with the demands of ballet becoming everything. Through it all, she was constantly told she was too big to dance and only ever made it to the chorus of the state ballet companies. She persevered.

Irina was brought up in the harsh poverty of 1980s Soviet Union and her mother Natalya would cut up old T-shirts to make her daughter leotards.

In 1998 she graduated as a top student from the class of Elvira Kokorina at the Vaganova Ballet Academy and she went to the Jacobson Ballet Company (named after Leonid Jacobson, a famous avant-garde choreographer in the USSR, who had died in 1975). After six months she left and joined the newly formed St Petersburg Ballet.

Even though it was then only five years-old, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre provided the right opportunity for Irina, with performances in major roles. She joined as a soloist and within two years, Irina was promoted to principal; by 2001, she had become the company’s prima ballerina, aged just 21.

The rest of the world celebrated her as an ugly duckling who had become a swan – with the British critics in particular hailing her as a new leading light. The ballet elite of Russia, however, sharpened its claws. The all-powerful Bolshoi is seen as the very pinnacle and protector of classic Russian dance and Irina, because of her shape and size, had never measured up to its exacting standards. To be made a prima ballerina and not to be accepted by the Bolshoi – the beating heart of Russian ballet – left her wide open to sneering from the dance elite. It’s something she has learned to live with.

Irina Kolesnikova as Odette
Irina Kolesnikova as Odile

A splendidly statuesque dancer with gorgeous fluidity of arms and back plus dazzling technique (her 32 fouettés were bang on the spot), she dominated the stage and her performance was well worth attending the show. Precision. Quiet power. Controlled strength. Regal carriage. Vaganova-trained dancers are easy to spot: Their technique is deeply internalized and their bodies naturally breathe classical movement — a result of years of highly structured class.

The swan maidens were disciplined, with well-aligned arms and torso and graceful flexibility. Ballet is one of the last bastions where the body is all. Female ballet dancers must conform, certainly in major companies, to specific aesthetic norms, which include thinness and ideas about harmonious proportions. (In modern and contemporary dance a far greater range of body types is accepted.) For 19th century classical ballets like Swan Lake the dancers in the corps de ballet must not differ too much from one another physically, since they embody collective groups of swans.

The dancers of the Act 3 variations, especially the Spanish and the Hungarians, were lively, animated and joyful. The jester had a much bigger role than in many versions, and he was funny 🙂

On the Art Gallery Trail in Florence – Accademia delle Belle Arti

Michelangelo’s David is among the most famous statues in the world, so easily recognizable that advertisers use images of it to sell everything from cigarettes to soap, from motorcycles to men’s cologne. At the moment of its unveiling some five hundred years ago it created a sensation, and every year people still flock to Florence to stand looking up at it in awe. Michelangelo’s towering marble statue of David has the quality that defines greatness in art: no matter how often one sees the work, its impact never lessens.

Michelangelo’s David at Galleria Dell’Accademia, Florence

Since 1873 the statue has been inside the Accademia delle Belle Arti, at the centre of a domed rotunda specially designed to hold it, but the David was never intended for such a sheltered and “arty” location. For almost four centuries Michelangelo’s masterpiece stood in the thick of Florentine politics, outdoors in the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the city hall. There it was subject not only to weather but also to the changing fortunes of the Florentine state. Opponents of the government often expressed hostility by hurling stones at the statue, and in 1527 a bench thrown out a window of the city hall during a civic disturbance damaged the left arm and hand. A teenage boy rescued the pieces and kept them until they could be reattached. In the Piazza della Signoria an inferior copy has replaced the original, luring ill-informed tourists and serving as a roost for the city’s pigeons.

The copy of David in Piazza della Signoria

The origins of such a famous statue should be easy to trace but instead we’re confronted with as many myths as facts. Part of the problem lies in the stories spun by Giorgio Vasari, the man who, as a boy, saved the shattered pieces of David’s arm and who by the mid 16th century had become the first biographer of Italian artists. His adoration of Michelangelo sometimes led him to embellish his anecdotes. Vasari claimed that Michelangelo returned to his native Florence in 1501 at the urging of friends, in order to work on a five meters long block of marble that had been “spoiled” by the incompetence of a certain Simone da Fiesole. Vasari also stated that this botched block had previously been offered to Leonardo da Vinci, and he implied that Leonardo wasn’t up to the challenge, but that Michelangelo sought out and received it as “a useless thing” that nobody else could have transformed into a credible human figure.

Scholars have reconstructed a different story. Rather than coming back to Florence from Rome at the urging of friends, what drew Michelangelo to Florence was his acceptance of a commission: a contract drawn up by the Operai (Board of Works) of the cathedral, which stipulated the subject, the artist’s payment in relationship to a time schedule, and a requirement that the work meet a stringent standard of quality. There’s no evidence that the Operai first offered the commission to Leonardo, and no indication that Simone da Fiesole damaged it — as far as anyone can tell, no such person as Simone ever existed. Vasari did have one thing right, though. An earlier artist had begun to carve the huge block and had left it incomplete. Who was he, and why was the project abandoned for nearly a generation before Michelangelo took it up again? Here, modern archival researchers studying the records of the Operai and the city government have uncovered a fascinating story unknown to Vasari.

Since the early years of the 1400s, cathedral authorities had envisioned a series of colossal statues of Old Testament heroes that would be placed high up on the buttresses of Florence cathedral. Although the project had never been fully carried out, it was never quite abandoned. Donatello, among the greatest sculptors of 15th century Florence, had provided a huge terra-cotta statue of Joshua (destroyed in the 1600s), and in the 1460s he also received a commission for a second over-life-size figure, to be carved in marble. By that time Donatello, nearing eighty years old, was unable to tackle such a large commission without assistance, so a younger sculptor named Agostino di Duccio began the work under his direction. When Donatello died in 1466, official interest in the project ended, although the unfinished statue — barely roughed out — remained in the cathedral workshop. It was still there thirty-five years later.

When Michelangelo took up the project in 1501 he was not, as Vasari implied, striking out in an exciting new direction. Instead, he was following a time-honoured path, joining the ranks of his distinguished predecessors by contributing to the sculptural program of the cathedral. We know that Michelangelo admired the work of Donatello, which included several statues of David, and here was a real challenge: to complete a statue begun under the direction of the earlier master in a way that would not just be worthy of Donatello but would surpass him.

It’s probably no coincidence that the Operai of Florence cathedral offered Michelangelo this commission in 1501, exactly a century after the famous competition that resulted in the creation of Ghiberti’s first set of bronze doors for the cathedral baptistery. Vasari’s recollection of the rivalry between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi for the commission to execute the baptistery doors may have inspired him to invent a similar competition between Leonardo and Michelangelo over which one of them would carve the statue of David.

Furthermore, by 1501 Florence had fallen on hard times. The short-lived theocratic republic led by Savonarola had ended with his being burned at the stake in 1498. The city was being threatened militarily by the army of Cesare Borgia, a son of Pope Alexander VI notorious for his brutality and unscrupulousness. France had invaded Italy and was menacing Florence from the north. The treasury of the republic was running low, leadership was weak, and pro-Medici partisans were intriguing to overthrow the precarious anti-Medici republic. To the Florentines, beset with both immediate and impending problems, the cathedral still embodied their most cherished ideals of spiritual and civic dignity, and it was the perfect focus for patriotic impulses. Hence the reopening of the sculptural program that had been dormant for almost forty years and the decision to hire Michelangelo, a native son fresh from a series of successes as a sculptor in Rome.

Michelangelo had lived in Rome from 1496 until 1501, absorbing ideas and inspiration from the Eternal City’s wealth of classical antiquities and making contacts among Rome’s wealthy art collectors. Around 1497 he’d executed an uncannily antique-looking statue of the Drunken Bacchus (now in the Museo del Bargello), and by 1499, on commission from a French cardinal, he’d finished his exquisite Pietà for Old St. Peter’s. He had spent time in Europe’s first museum of Roman antiquities, the collection founded by Pope Sixtus IV and housed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill. Like many a modern visitor, he must have entered the courtyard of the Conservatori and stood in amazement before a two and a half meter high marble head and an equally gigantic hand, foot, and kneecap, fragments of a statue of Constantine discovered in 1486 in the ruins of the Basilica of Constantine in the Roman Forum. With such experiences behind him, Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501 well prepared to think big.

The statue Michelangelo created during the next three years of steady labour proved far too magnificent to be hauled up onto one of the cathedral’s buttresses. Although the David stands five meters high, the immense architectural forms of the cathedral would have dwarfed it, and nobody would have been able to view it adequately from twelve meters below. At that point, in 1504, the republic stepped in and took control of the project. From surviving documents it appears that, even before the open meeting held to discuss the statue’s location, government officials had already decided that the most effective place for the statue to be displayed was in the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the city hall.

Despite its outcome being something of a foregone conclusion, the Signoria considered the public meeting important enough to hire a secretary to record the discussion, and the secretary’s notes give us a glimpse of Florentine political processes in action. Although women weren’t allowed any such freedom, male citizens of all ages and classes addressed the committee. A number of the city’s best-known architects and artists spoke, including Leonardo da Vinci, who recommended an inconspicuous place for his rival’s work. The only person not consulted, oddly enough, was Michelangelo. The committee finally agreed with what the Signoria had wanted all along: that the statue of David, which the Florentines had taken to calling il gigante (the giant), should be placed on a platform near the front entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, in the Piazza della Signoria, the political heart of the city, where it would serve as a proud symbol of the Florentine republic.

The minutes of the meeting, which survive in the archives of Florence cathedral, reveal the meaning of the David for Florentines of the early 1500s. Nobody who spoke showed any interest in the statue’s religious identity, and there’s no sign of our modern tendency to see the statue as a great work of art. Rather, it was regarded as a powerful symbol, almost magical in its potency, full of political associations of great significance for viewers of that time. The head in particular, with its large intense eyes staring in the direction of an unseen Goliath, caused one participant to warn that the statue should not be placed so those eyes glared at Florentine passers-by. The figure, he insisted, should not “look at us”. The final placement of the statue reflects that concern, as well as a political one — David stares off to the south, away from the heavily used piazza and toward Rome, where enemies of the Florentine republic, in particular the exiled Medici, continued to hatch their plots.

The second most popular location suggested for the statue was inside the Loggia dei Lanzi, where it would be better protected from the weather but where it would lose much of its visual impact as well as its political weight. Putting the figure squarely in front of the government headquarters made it into a clear statement of pro-republican, anti-Medicean sentiments, while tucking it into the Loggia dei Lanzi would have blunted that message by having David’s stare directed at a blank wall, thereby turning the statue into a less partisan and more general civic symbol. With this factor in mind, it becomes easier to see the political significance of the final choice for the location of the David.

Although the distance is only a couple of blocks, it took four days to move the statue from Michelangelo’s studio in the workshop of the cathedral to its final position. Securely wrapped and suspended horizontally on ropes from a strong wooden frame provided with rollers, the muffled marble giant inched through the streets toward the Piazza della Signoria. And then, during the course of a week, while hundreds of gaping Florentines looked on in amazement, the largest statue most of them had ever seen was raised into place.

From such a distance in time it can be difficult to imagine what was going through the minds of the citizens of Florence who witnessed the placement of the statue in front of their city hall. Many of them, like the city’s leaders and those who participated in the meeting concerning the location of the work, surely would have recognized the statue’s patriotic and political significance: the watchful warrior hero who stands guard, ready to defend the city against a specific set of enemies, namely, the Medici and their supporters. To the city’s intellectuals, imbued with ideas derived from ancient Greek philosophy, the statue no doubt conveyed the life of the spirit through the beauty of the body. Citizens who had travelled to Rome may have recognized echoes of antiquity in the statue’s enormous size, magnificent musculature, and unabashed nudity. The artist’s closest friends may have seen in it something much more intimate: Michelangelo’s own passion for perfect male bodies and masculine beauty, a passion seen also in the artist’s love poetry addressed to handsome young men. But did any of them realize they were present at the birth of a new era in the arts?

Michelangelo’s David is the first colossal statue of a male nude since antiquity, and a far cry from the preadolescent shepherd boy of the biblical story. Never much interested in literal realism or the mere illustration of stories, Michelangelo strove toward an ideal of human perfection in his art that went far beyond what any previous artist had accomplished. His David is not really “doing” anything, although some have suggested he’s looking toward an unseen Goliath and is about to launch a stone from his slingshot. But the slingshot hangs limp across David’s shoulder and his right hand only loosely cradles a rock. The figure stands tense but motionless, an eternal image of superhuman beauty, what Frederick Hartt called “humanity raised to a higher power”. David is the earliest example in sculpture of the lofty and grand artistic style known as High Renaissance.

Modern viewers are sometimes startled by the intensity of the expression on David’s face. The large, deeply drilled eyes, sharply defined lips, frowning forehead, and the wedge of thick curly hair combine to create an impression of terribilità, an Italian term roughly translatable as “awesomeness”. We need to remember, however, that when Michelangelo was working on the statue he thought it would be placed high up on a buttress of the cathedral, and that such strongly defined features would be necessary in order for the face to convey any expression at all to those who viewed it from the street.

Other seemingly odd features of the David are the figure’s large feet and hands. Although some scholars claim Michelangelo carved them that way to indicate David was an adolescent boy who hadn’t yet quite grown into all his body parts, a glance at the rest of the figure shows the absurdity of this notion. Michelangelo’s David is a mature young man, not the boy of the biblical narrative and certainly not a gangly adolescent. The large feet, and the ancient Roman motif of a carved tree trunk behind the right leg, serve to anchor the statue securely and prevent it from toppling over. The large hands are most likely an expressive device intended to convey a sense of physical power and even menace. The fact that this ancient Hebrew hero is uncircumcised is another indication of Michelangelo’s indifference to historical accuracy.

That a statue so thoroughly imbued with the values of the Florentine republic survived the final downfall of that government and remained in its original location until the late 19th century is a tribute both to the iconic stature of the work and to the tremendous prestige of the artist who created it. The ducal government of the reinstated Medici appears never to have considered moving, much less destroying, the David. Aside from the backbreaking effort involved in moving such a large statue and the possibility of damaging it in the process, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici was shrewd enough to realize that, as a work of “the divine Michelangelo”, the statue transcended the meaning assigned to it when it was put in place in 1504. Over time it had ceased to be a symbol of the vanished republic and had become an emblem of Florence itself. Whatever political messages it had once conveyed, it was now an artistic treasure, an emblem of Florence’s cultural pre-eminence.

The rest of the Gallery pales into insignificance compared to the David. To reach the statue visitors walk down a long corridor, the Gallery of the Slaves, lined with unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo, remnants of several of the artist’s ill-fated projects. Those shadowy figures seem to be struggling to break free from the blocks of marble that imprison them. Then, at the end of the corridor, the David looms on its pedestal, as fully realized and free from its stone block as any statue ever made, dwarfing the mere mortals who mill about below it. The gigantic figure raised two meters off the ground seems to belong to another, higher, more perfect world than our own, a vision of transfigured humanity so overwhelming that the sight of it often brings visitors to a dead stop, gasping with shock at the sheer concentrated power and beauty of the statue. Whether on the first visit or the hundredth, Michelangelo’s David is one of those works of art that never disappoints.

Gallery of the Slaves with the Tribuna of David at the end

The other collection in the museum of interest to us was the collection of musical instruments from the 17th, 18th and 19th century, coming from the Grand-Ducal collections of the Medici and Lorraine families.

Museum of musical instruments
Museum of musical instruments

Although Lorenzo the Magnificent lived 200 years before Antonio Stradivari, it comes as no surprise that a craftsman such as Stradivari came to the attention of later members of the Medici family. Their patronage led to the commissioning of five of his most beautiful instruments: the Medici Quintet.

Grand Prince Ferdinand (second from right) and his musicians, by Anton Domenico Gabbiani. Galleria dell’ Accademia

Most sources on Stradivari refer to three possible candidates for the commission of the instruments: Cosimo III de’ Medici (1642–1723); his eldest son and heir, Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663–1713), who unfortunately died before his father and therefore never ruled over the Grand Duchy of Tuscany; and the Marquis Bartolomeo Ariberti, a Cremonese citizen and devoted admirer of Stradivari.

The commission of the quintet appears to have been begun by Bartolomeo Ariberti and then continued by Ferdinando de’ Medici. But a third party must have played a role later, because only four Medici instruments dated 1690 survive and the quintet today includes the ‘Medici, Tuscan’ violin of 1716. It is still disputed who commissioned this later instrument. It could have been Gian Gastone de’ Medici (1671–1737), who was a renowned music lover and the last Medicean Grand Duke of Tuscany. But the violin could also have reached Florence after Stradivari’s death, when the Tuscan city was ruled by the House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Copy of Bartolomeo Ariberti’s letter to Stradivari dated September 19, 1690

Although political instability and wars have taken their toll on the original 1690 quintet, which did not survive intact, four of the instruments belonging to the first set and the ‘Medici, Tuscan’ of 1716 can be still seen today, although divided between collections in Florence, Rome and Washington. Stradivari’s designs for the inlaying of these beautiful masterpieces, a couple of moulds and some paper templates are also still preserved in Cremona.

The Medici collection in the Galleria dell’Accademia includes the 1690 cello and tenor viola, and the violin from 1716.

The 1690 ‘Medici’, 1697 ‘Castelbarco’ and 1701 ‘Servais’ are the only three surviving Stradivari cellos of large dimensions that have not been reduced in size. In September 1690 Stradivari received a letter of approval from Ariberti, who reported the enthusiasm among the Medici court for the tone qualities of the cello: ‘The other day I made a present of the two Violins and the Violoncello which you made for me to His Highness the Prince of Tuscany; and I assure you, to my great satisfaction, he has accepted them with such a pleasure that more I could not expect. The members of his orchestra… were unanimous in expressing their great appreciation, declaring the instruments quite perfect, and, above all, exclaiming with one voice that they have never heard a Violoncello with such an agreeable tone…’

Antonio Stradivari, 1690, the ‘Medici, Tuscan’ Cello

The instrument underwent a major restoration in 1877, performed by Giuseppe Scarampella, who replaced the neck and bass bar, and repaired some woodworm damage, but did not reduce the cello in size, as was mistakenly reported in the catalogue of the 1937 exhibition for the Bicentennial of Stradivari’s death.

The Medici tenor viola of 1690 is mentioned at the end of the letter from Bartolomeo Ariberti to Stradivari, when Ariberti asks the maker to supply two violas: ‘I have now to request you to begin at once two violas, one tenor and the other contralto, which are wanted to complete the concerto.’

Antonio Stradivari, 1690, the ‘Medici, Tuscan’ Viola

The 1690 viola is a rare tenor that has never been reduced in size, as was common with other 17th century tenores. Its contralto partner went missing from the Medici inventories in the 1770s, when it appears to have left Florence.

The instrument has a two-piece back made from beautiful maple with narrow vivid curls that run almost horizontally. Miraculously the neck, fingerboard, tailpiece, tailnut and bridge are all original, while the monogram ‘ASC’ is stamped in the mortise of the pegbox. The bridge is of maple decorated with black ink, presenting a floral motif on one side and two mythical Atlantes on the other. The fingerboard and tailpiece are also of maple; the former has a double-row of inlaid ivory and ebony, while on the lower part a carved decoration of mother-of-pearl reproduces the Medici’s coat of arms. The tailpiece is also decorated in mother-of-pearl with a Cupid ready to shoot an arrow and a floral motif below.

The tenor viola has the monogram ‘ASC’ stamped in the mortise of the pegbox
Antonio Stradivari, 1690, the ‘Medici, Tuscan’ Viola

It is unclear when the violin dated 1716 reached Florence. The letter from Ariberti to Stradivari of 1690, hinted that new commissions from the Medici were foreseeable in the future. The violin bears its original label: ‘Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1716.’

Antonio Stradivari, 1716, the ‘Medici, Tuscan’

The violin remained part of the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany after the death in 1737 of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the last Medicean Grand Duke of Tuscany, as is confirmed by the inventories of 1829 and 1846, and it was handed down to the Florentine Royal Music Institute in 1861.

Together these three Stradivari instruments were displayed in Cremona at the 1937 exhibition to mark the Bicentennial of Stradivari’s death and again in the 1987 exhibition, and they have appeared individually in various other exhibitions. They are normally viewable as part of the permanent collection of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.

Antonio Stradivari, 1690, the ‘Medici, Tuscan’, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome
Antonio Stradivari, 1690, ‘Tuscan, Medici’ contralto viola, at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

The Dulcimer is an instrument that was very popular in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries, only to disappear completely in the Romantic age. With the ingenious arrangement of the strings, which were plucked with plectra fastened to the fingertips, a wide range of notes can be played on this small instrument.

The Dulcimer in the collection is entirely constructed of marble of three different kinds (white statuary marble, bardiglio from Carrara and yellow broccatello) rather than wood. The dedication and the painting on the cover of the case shows that it was built for Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici, the father of Grand Prince Ferdinando, after 1691.

Michele Antonio Grandi, Marble Dulcimer, after 1691

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco was a Paduan maker of musical instruments, at the court of Grand Prince Ferdinando, where he invented the piano shortly before 1700. During the late years of the 17th century, Cristofori invented two keyboard instruments before he began his work on the piano.

The spinettone, Italian for “big spinet”, was a large, multi-choired spinet (a harpsichord in which the strings are slanted to save space). This invention may have been meant to fit into a crowded orchestra pit for theatrical performances, while having the louder sound of a multi-choired instrument.

Spinettone by Bartolomeo Cristofori

The other invention (1690) was the highly original oval spinet, a kind of virginal with the longest strings in the middle of the case.

Oval Spinet by Bartolomeo Cristofori

The earliest known upright piano was built in 1739, seven years after the death of Cristofori, by an instrument maker who may have been his assistant, Domenico del Mela.

Domenico del Mela, Upright Piano, 1739

When the sovereignty of the Grand-Duchy of Tuscany passed from the Medici family (who died out in 1737) to the Austrian one of the Lorraines, radical changes occurred in the musical life of the Court and that of the entire city: Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (ruler of Florence from 1765) promoted public musical events, held in the streets and squares, as well as celebrations open on occasion to the citizens as a whole. This new approach was reflected in the collection of musical instruments as well. New instruments, wind and percussion instruments in particular, were purchased and imported from abroad.

Johann Caspar Joseph Einbingler, Pair of kettle-drums, c. 1837
Jean Nicolas Lambert, Pair of Hurdy-gurdies, 1775
Collection of brass instruments – horns and trombones were imported from Germany and Austria
Collection of wind instruments made of wood. The clarinets are from about 1838.