Category Archives: Europe 2007

Tintoretto 500

In 1548, Jacopo Tintoretto, not yet thirty, delivered his Miracle of the Slave to the Scuola Grande di S. Marco. Initiating a cycle in the Sala del Capitolo dedicated to events in the life and legend of St. Mark, the canvas became the centre of public controversy. Although it was enthusiastically acclaimed by Pietro Aretino in a letter of April 1548, in which the grand publicist speaks for the painter’s admirers, the brothers of the scuola were evidently of divided opinion. Carlo Ridolfi reports that Tintoretto, offended by such hesitation, removed the picture and took it home. Eventually the factions were reconciled and the painting returned to the Sala Grande. While internal politics are likely to have been one source of discord, the painting itself was clearly intended as a bold public gesture, a challenge to the conventions of Venetian teleri (large scale painting), provocative especially in its radical foreshortenings and violation of the flatness of the picture plane.

The Miracle of St Mark Freeing the Slave, 1548
Jacopo Tintoretto, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

The Miracle of the Slave represents a moment of arrival in the art of Tintoretto. Summarizing all the forces present in his youthful work, of which it is the culmination, its still greater energies announce the course of his future development. The Miracle of the Slave represents a synthesis of pictorial values, a demonstration of the principle Tintoretto was said to have inscribed on the wall of his studio, which read: “The drawing (disegno) of Michelangelo and the colouring (colorito) of Titian.”

Colorito, or colorire, is the term used by the Venetians, not colore, that is not the noun, but a form of the verb. They are not concerned with colour per se, but with the manner in which the colours are applied: colorito is an active, constructive concept. In theory as in practice, Venetian colouring is inseparable from Venetian brushwork; the effect of the colour depends on the touch of the painter’s brush.

Pietro Aretino, who hailed the “swift and eager youth” in his letter celebrating the Miracle of the Slave in 1548, added a caveat: “And your name would be hailed if only you would reduce your speed of execution in favour of greater patience.” Tintoretto’s speed of execution seemed to go beyond any legitimate “swiftness and sureness of hand”. Vasari declared Tintoretto “extravagant, capricious, quick and resolute, and the most terrible brain ever seen in painting… he has worked by pure chance and without disegno,” leaving “sketches for finished works,” working “by change and by boldness, rather than with disegno and judgement.”

Yet Vasari was capable of distinguishing among the paintings of Tintoretto. He admired the Miracle of the Slave of its “great copiousness of figures, of foreshortenings, of armour, buildings, portraits and other such things, which greatly embellish that work.” Evidently Vasari understood that this particular canvas was executed to be seen from a distance, the entire length of the Sala del Capitolo of the Scuola Grande di S. Marco, justifying the looser execution of this examples of “il colorito alla veneziana”.

Tintoretto developed the uniqueness of his bold style consciously and with purpose; even if that manner of painting offended some, it guaranteed notice.

Tintoretto was the only one of the dominant Venetian painters of the Cinquecento actually born in Venice, and he remained the most determinedly parochial, hardly ever leaving the city. Tintoretto seems to have claimed all Venice as the rightful arena for his art. Already by 1561 Francesco Sansovino, listing among the “notable things of the city of Venice” this painter, “all spirit, all quickness,” observed “that he alone has painted more in this city, and elsewhere, than all the other painters put together; for his hand is accompanied by his quick mind… He has abundant invention, but not much patience, which is needed to bring anything to completion, and it is certain that he takes on too much.”

Tintoretto seems to have been driven by a desire to cover the walls of Venice with his art. He was unscrupulous in securing commissions – undercutting the competition on price, offering to paint in the style of others and for less, at times even giving away his work. No other painter seems to have enjoyed such a reputation. The scandals that accompanied his canvases for the Scuola Grande di S. Marco were repeated in 1564 at the competition for the central ceiling painting of the Sala dell’Albergo of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco, St Roch in Glory. Instead of submitting a modello for competitive evaluation, Tintoretto managed to have installed a completed canvas before the competition; then to the chagrin of the brothers, he donated the work in the name of their patron saint, a donation they could not refuse. This most Venetian of Venetian painters had a habit of challenging “el modo et ordene antiquo”.

St Roch in Glory, 1564
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco

Despite the opposition of many, Tintoretto nonetheless managed to secure for himself the decoration of the rest of the Sala dell’Albergo and, moreover, to be elected a confratello of the Scuola di S. Rocco. Following the decoration of the ceiling, he painted the great Crucifixion in 1565.

Extending over twelve meters across the long wall over the tribunal, this most impressive of Tintoretto’s paintings presents a panoramic spectacle containing a wealth of incident, all of it emanating from the central and controlling event, the Crucifixion of Jesus. Central to the expansive composition is Christ himself; set above the earth against the turbulent sky, he is the source of a circular aureole of divine light. His radiance is reflected below in the illuminated zone of the middle ground, which is defined by divergent orthogonals receding from the foot of the cross with a centrifugal energy that changes the entire picture. Figures and objects, the mechanical details and tools of the Passion, enact the counterpoint of Tintoretto’s dynamic compositional mode. Here, in particular, the physical forces of perspective and radical foreshortenings that had threatened the traditional planarity of Venetian teleri are reaccommodated to the picture plane by the larger controlling patterns of light and dark. IN this Curcifixion

Crucifixion, 1565
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco

In this Crucifixion are eloquently manifest the principles of Tintoretto’s art, his rethinking of traditional values, but also his continuing recognition of the importance of the plane as final determinant of pictorial coherence.

Crucifixion on the wall in the Sala dell’Albergo
Scuola Grande di S. Rocco

Tintoretto completed the decoration of the Sala dell’Albergo in 1566-67 with scenes of the Passion of Christ leading up to the Crucifixion.

View of the Sala dell’Albergo
Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
The Ascent to Calvary, 1565-67
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
Christ before Pilate, 1566-67
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Albergo, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco

In 1575 he volunteered to paint the central canvas in the newly redesigned ceiling of the Sala del Capitolo for nothing, and beginning with that work, the Erection of the Bronze Serpent, le laid claim to the rest of the ceiling, which he completed by the end of 1577, at the cost only of materials. At that point, he offered to paint the rest of the room, promising to deliver three teleri annually in exchange for a lifetime stipend from the scuola of one hundred ducats per annum (the normal price for a single such canvas). By the summer of 1581 the decoration of the Sala Grande was complete, with scenes from the life of Christ, and the following year he began work in the Sala Terrena (ground-floor hall), essentially a Marian cycle. By the time he finished in 1587 Tintoretto had succeeded in turning the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco into a monument to himself and his art.

Sala del Capitolo
Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
The Brazen Serpent, 1575/76
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala del Capitolo, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
The Miracle of Manna, 1577
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala del Capitolo, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1578-81
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala del Capitolo, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
View of the Sala Terrena
Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
The Adoration of the Magi, 1582
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala Terrena, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco
The Flight into Egypt, 1582-87
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala Terrena, Scuola Grande di S. Rocco

And if that’s not enough Tintoretto in one place, next month Scuola Grande di S. Marco will showcase a special exhibition: Art, Faith and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice.

This year Venice celebrates the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jacopo Tintoretto with three special exhibitions:

  • Young Tintoretto at Galleria dell’Accademia (7 September 2018 – 6 January 2019)
  • Tintoretto: The Artist of Venice 500 at Palazzo Ducale (7 September 2018 – 6 January 2019)
  • Art, Faith and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice at Scuola Grande di S. Marco (6 September 2018 – 6 January 2019)

The exhibition at Galleria dell’Accademia will concentrate on the first ten years of Tintoretto’s working life while the exhibition at the Doge’s Palace will tell the story of Tintoretto’s later career, with masterpieces coming from major private and public collections throughout the world, such as the Louvre, the Prado and the National Gallery of London. The US conservation charity Save Venice has been restoring 13 paintings in preparation for the forthcoming exhibitions, including the four mythological allegories (permanently exhibited at Palazzo Ducale) that Tintoretto painted around 1577 to extol the unity and glory of the Venetian Republic. Placed in the Sala dell’Anticollegio, their allegorical significance was legible to those awaiting audience with the Doge of his councilors.

Many of Tintoretto’s paintings have remained in Venice exposed to a permanently damp atmosphere which is hot and wet in the summer, and cold and wet in the winter – this was the original impetus to the development of oil on canvas technique in Venetian art. Some of the paintings look quite old, despite the devoted work of conservation experts over the years.

Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, 1576-77
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Anticollegio, Palazzo Ducale
Minerva Sending Away Mars from Peace and Prosperity, 1576-77
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Anticollegio, Palazzo Ducale
The Forge of Vulcan, 1576-77
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Anticollegio, Palazzo Ducale
Mercury and the Graces, 1576-77
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala dell’Anticollegio, Palazzo Ducale

After the tremendous fire that devastated the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in 1577, Tintoretto was given the task of completely repainting the decoration of the ceiling. His workshop made an extensive contribution to the work. It is clear that at the time, Tintoretto preferred to concentrate on the last canvases for the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco. His last effort for the palace was the huge canvas with The Coronation of the Virgin in Paradise, immediately baptised The Paradise. To assist him with this project, Tintoretto used numerous pupils, including his son Domenico.

Doge Nicolò da Ponte Receiving a Laurel Crown from Venice, 1584
Jacopo Tintoretto, ceiling of Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale
Paradise, after 1588
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale
Paradise (detail), after 1588
Jacopo Tintoretto, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale

In addition to the works at Scuola Grande di S. Rocco and Palazzo Ducale, Tintoretto found the time to create works for the:

  • Church of Santa Maria dei Carmini
  • Church of San Rocco
  • Church of San Polo
  • Church of San Silvestro
  • Church of San Cassiano
  • Church of Santa Maria Mater Domini
  • Church of San Simeon Grande
  • Church of San Trovaso
  • Church of the Gesuati
  • Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
  • Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
  • Church of Santo Stefano
  • Church of Santa Maria del Giglio
  • Church of San Moise
  • Church of San Giuseppe di Castello
  • Church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti
  • Church of the Gesuiti
  • Church of San Felice
  • Church of San Marcuola
  • Church of San Marziale
  • Church of the Madonna dell’Orto

And Biblioteca Marciana! He really did cover the walls of Venice with his art. Tintoretto painted obsessively, leading to his nickname ‘Il Furioso’. The result of all this passion is a vast collection of more than 700 paintings in Venice, not including the works that have been destroyed over time. The speed with which he created his works means that not all of them are masterpieces.

Venezia Arte, a non-profit cultural association, has been organising monthly guided tours around the city focusing on the churches containing the artist’s works and even visiting the artist’s home. First on the itinerary is, of course, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

Tintoretto is one of the most innovative visual artists when telling stories. In the Origin of the Milky Way, he shows origin myth, with the Milky Way resulting from the milk which gushed in fine streams into the heavens when the infant Hercules was pulled from Juno’s breast.

The Origin of the Milky Way, 1577-79
Jacopo Tintoretto, The National Gallery London

While Tintoretto is best known for his gigantic religious and mythological works, the exhibitions will also reveal his skill as a portrait painter and his creative process, how he would copy Michelangelo sculptures, make dioramas to study composition, take mannequins and suspend them from the ceiling to plan his compositions.

Self-portrait, c. 1588
Jacopo Tintoretto, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jacopo Sansovino and the Romanization of Venetian Architecture

In the Proemio to his Four Books on Architecture, with reference to Venice, and to Sansovino’s library in particular, Palladio asserted:

One is beginning to see buildings of merit [in Venice], since Giacomo Sansovino, sculptor and architect of great renown, began for the first time to make known the bella maniera [beautiful style], as one can see, (leaving aside many other fine works of his) in the new building of the Procuratia, which is the richest and most ornate that has probably ever been erected from antiquity to our own day.

Born and educated in Tuscany, Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), both an architect and a sculptor, succeeded in competing with the great Michelangelo. He won important commissions in Florence and Rome where, in the church of S. Marcello, he carved the tomb of Cardinal Sant’Angelo, one of his masterpieces. After working in Rome, mainly as an architect, he left the city in 1527 after the Sack of Rome and took refuge in Venice where his talents were soon appreciated. He rapidly received many important civic and ecclesiastical commissions: the façade of S. Francesco della Vigna, the Scuola della Misericordia and Palazzo Corner at S. Maurizio are all from this period. When the new plans for the area surrounding Piazza San Marco were proposed, Sansovino was commissioned to design the complex buildings that were to enclose the great area. Here his genius is truly revealed. The complex, inspired by the classical world of ancient Rome, provided impetus for other architects, especially Palladio, who admired Sansovino’s Library and acknowledge it in his own façade design for S. Giorgio Maggiore.

Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino, engraving

Since his first appearance in Venice in flight from the Sack of Rome in 1527, Sansovino dominated the architectural scene in the city. At the time of his arrival he had little architectural experience. His chief reputation lay in his talent as a sculptor: “He is a great man after Michelangelo”, remarked Lorenzo Lotto in a letter reporting his flight. In Rome he had begun two churches, S. Marcello al Corso and S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, both of which suffered technical problems and were eventually assigned to his more technically experienced contemporary, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. His most successful Roman building was the palace for the Florentine banker Giovanni Gaddi, and it was Gaddi who accompanied him in his flight and initially offered him hospitality in Venice.

Despite his uncertain credentials in technical matters, Sansovino was immediately engaged to restore the domes of S. Marco, which were thought to be on the point of collapse. Vasari records the virtuosity of this restoration in graphic detail: indeed, the records of the Procuratia de Supra confirm that, within two days of Lotto’s first report of Sansovino’s arrival, the exceptional sum of five hundred ducats was provided for the repair. A year later, the procurators were still incurring “maximum expenses”. Vasari tells us that Sansovino was recommended for this task by none other than Doge Andrea Gritti himself, “who was a great friend of genius”. It is in the context of Gritti’s personal agenda for the renewal of Venetian culture that Sansovino made his architectural contribution.

On the death of Bartolomeo Bon, proto to the Procuratia de Supra, Gritti recommended Sansovino as his successor. This was the section of the Procuratia de Supra that was responsible for the upkeep of the church of S. Marco as well as most of the other buildings in the Piazza, apart from the Palazzo Ducale. On his appointment in 1529, Sansovino was given a house in the newly reconstructed Procuratie Vecchie near the Torre dell’Orologio, overlooking the Piazzetta, with its distant vista of S. Giorgio Maggiore between the two great columns.

View of the Piazzetta, Lazzaro Bastiani, Museo Correr

The new proto was preoccupied with the state of the buildings around the Piazzetta, because his job required him to keep these properties in good repair. Opposite Palazzo Ducale stood a row of five hostelries of ill repute, known as Peregrin, Rizza, Cavaletto, Luna and Lion, while at the end of the row, facing the Bacino, stood the Beccaria, or meat market. These buildings were Veneto-Byzantine structures dating from the early 13th century, with a row of lean-to bakery stalls in front that obscured their ground-floor arcades. The are clearly visible in the view of the Piazzetta attributed to Lazzaro Bastiani, now in Museo Correr. The south side of the Piazza, where the procurators themselves lived, was of similar age and equally decrepit. The Ospendale Orseolo occupied the east end of this range of buildings, which enveloped the Campanile on two sides. The rest of the Campanile was surrounded by money changer’s stalls.

Piazzetta San Marco

The decision to rebuild the north side of Piazza S. Marco after the fire of 1512 had been taken despite the deep crisis induced by the wars of the League of Cambrai (1509-16) which had seen Venice pitted against the major European powers and in danger of losing her terraferma possessions. Through this bold resolution, the procurators had already demonstrated their awareness that renewal could be justified as a capital investment because of the reductions of maintenance costs and the increased revenues from the rent of shops and apartments. What was lacking, though, in this new wing, where Sansovino’s own house lay, was any statement of artistic renewal.

By 1530, however, the Republic had fully recovered, economically and politically, from the traumatic Cambrai wars. Moreover, the cultural context has been transformed by the romanizing policies of the early years of Gritti’s dogate. But it was the intellectual revolution made possible by the rise of Venice as a major European centre of printing and publishing that most effectively transformed the place of architecture in the culture.

Plan of Piazza S. Marco

The Zecca was begun by Sansovino in 1536. On the façade, a row of nine shops selling cheese and salami were incorporated into the building, with the silver smelter behind and the gold smelter above. The courtyard at the rear was surrounded by workshops and storerooms. The cheese shops are dignified by the use of simple rustication in the manner of the ancients. The function of the mint itself – merely industrial, yet vital to the economic viability of the state – is enhanced by the choice of a rusticated Doric order. The finesse of Sansovino’s sculptural imagination is evident in the superb quality of the stone carving. Around the shops, every alternate stone projects slightly, to give subtle gradations of light and shade. On the piano nobile, correct and precisely cut Doric details are juxtaposed with rough-hewn stones as white and shaggy as fleece, and the effect of tension is enhanced by the heavy lintels clutched threateningly over the windows. The third order, in rusticated Ionic, was added in 1538, within Sansovino’s lifetime, though probably not to his design, as his employers, the Procuratori de Supra, were engaged in a bitter dispute with the Zecca at this time.

Zecca and Biblioteca Marciana
Biblioteca Marciana

For the site in the Piazzetta that faced the Palazzo Ducale, Sansovino designed a two-storey elevation, intended to extend all around the main Piazza as far as the church of S. Geminiano at the west end. This was the building now known as the Library which was praised so fervently by Palladio. Construction was begun at the end nearest the Campanile in 1537, the year after the start of work on the Zecca. The hostelries were demolished and relocated one by one over the next twenty years, although Sansovino – despite enormous efforts in the last decade of his life – never managed to find an alternative site for the Beccaria. The range was finally completed after his death by Scamozzi in 1588-91.

It was only after the start of work on this Piazzetta wing that it was decided to house the Biblioteca Marciana, a celebrated collection of Greek and Latin texts, in the part of the building nearest the Campanile. This underlies the role of the new buildings as scenery for the open space outside, rather than simply as a design appropriate to the use of the interior.

The design of the Library must have impressed the architecturally informed audience by its abundant references to the buildings of Rome, both ancient and modern. The rich Doric order, for example, is based on that of the Basilica Aemilia, illustrated by Giuliano da Sangallo in his Vatican sketchbook. This ruin also inspired the ingenious corner solution, by which Sansovino succeeded in placing an exact half metope at the end of the Doric frieze, as prescribed by Vitruvius. Sansovino also followed the Vitruvian recommendation that libraries, like bedrooms, should face the east, to receive good morning light. The reading room falls in the seven bays of the piano nobile nearest the Campanile, its rich coffered ceiling embellished with tondi painted by the best Venetian painters of the day. The significance of the Library entrance in the very centre of the 21-bay wing is enhanced by the fact that it lies exactly opposite the medallion of Justice on the Palazzo Ducale.

Biblioteca Marciana facade detail
Biblioteca Marciana facade detail
Biblioteca Marciana facade detail
Biblioteca Marciana
S. Marco Campanile is the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica
Loggetta of the Campanile

Finally one reaches the Logegetta, begun by Sansovino at the foot of the Campanile in 1538 as a meeting place for the procurators, to replace the old loggia that had suffered damage by lightning over the centuries. Just as the Zecca had combined Rustic and Doric, and the Library Doric and Ionic, the Loggetta combines the Ionic and the Corinthian into a single order, as the end point in this overlapping series. The Composite was an order especially suitable for the expression of triumph, and this meaning is also explicit in the Loggetta’s design, based on three overlapping triumphal arches. The richness of the materials also underlines the role of this building as the summit of the hierarchy. Not only were the procurators themselves framed by triumphal arches as they sat in discussion inside, but the Loggetta also served as the ceremonial backdrop for ducal processions emerging from the Porta della Carta.

By separating the Library and the Campanile, Sansovino ensured that the Palazzo Ducale would be visible from any point in the Piazza.

In his painting Procession in Piazza San Marco, dated 1496, Gentile Bellini manipulated the true arrangement of the buildings in Piazza S. Marco by moving the whole south side of the Piazza sideways to reveal the Palazzo Ducale which would otherwise have been hidden behind the Campanile.

Procession in Piazza San Marco, by Gentile Bellini, 1496

The Venetian nobility viewed their own palaces as extensions of the imagery of the buildings in the Piazza – as the visual manifestations of their corporate identity and power. Soon after his arrival in Venice, in about 1527-28, Sansovino seems to have planned a huge palace at S. Samuele for the procurator Vettor Grimani, for which a large drawing of the ground plan survives in the Museo Correr. Sansovino’s second major project for a Venetian patrician family, to rebuild the great palace of the Corner family at S. Maurizio, destroyed by fire in 1532, was delayed by legal difficulties until the mid 1540s and the design was surely revised at that time.

The first of Sansovino’s Venetian palaces to be executed was the palace of Giovanni Dolfin, the Venetian merchant and ship owner. The preparation for the design fell in the very same years as the start of Sansovino’s three new buildings in the Piazzetta: the Zecca, the Library and the Loggetta.

In his first book of his Quatro Libri, speaking of ornament, Palladio commented that “nothing enhances the building more than columns, provided that they are conveniently placed and well proportioned in relation to the whole”. That was the challenge which Sansovino was to solve triumphantly in Venice: how to apply the classical orders to a palace façade in a way that reconciled the dictates of convenience and proportion. The traditional Venetian palace façade, with its fenestration concentrated in the centre, is not easily adapted to the rigors of the classical system, which requires bays of equal width. In the Palazzo Dolfin, Sansovino provided the clearest possible exposition of the correct superimposition of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, to impress an audience that would be already familiar with the rudiments of classicism.

Palazzo Dolfin-Manin

Sansovino resolved the need for uneven illumination by placing two arched windows in each bay of the central portion of the upper storeys, over a single arch in the arcade below, a solution already found in Palazzo Ducale and the Procuratie Vecchie. Unfortunately, the interior of the Palazo Dolfin was completely rebuilt by Selva at the end of the 18th century, preserving only the façade.

The Palazzo Corner at S. Maurizio was finally begun after the legal difficulties in dividing Zorzi Corner’s estate among his heirs were resolved in 1545. The exuberant sculptural richness of the S. Maurizio palace is far removed from the distilled classical essence of the Palazzo Dolfin; indeed, it is more reminiscent of the lavish three-dimensionality of Sansovino’s work in the Piazzetta. This affinity was intentional. The Corner family, one of the nobility’s case vecchie, had achieved almost regal status by the marriage of Caterina Corner to the king of Cyprus. When she was widowed in 1473 and persuaded by her brother Zorzi to abdicate, the family received huge estates in Cyprus in compensation and their enormous wealth was legendary.

Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande at S. Maurizio

The network of scuoli grande across the city provided a focus for the ceremonial life of the great citizen confraternities as well as the headquarters for their charitable duties. The Misericordia had already decided to replace its huge Gothic scuola in 1498, but the Cambrai wars subsequently prevented the start of work. In 1531, Jacopo Sansovino, the newly appointed proto of the Procuratia de Supra, was called in to advise on the prewar model by Alessandro Leopardi. Sansovino must have been critical of the old design, for in the same year, an additional four models were commissioned, including one by Sansovino himself. In a ballot held later in the same year, it was Sansovino’s model that was chosen, and work began on site in 1532. The bold ambitions of the scuola were already evident in the choice of the refugee Florentine, whose only works so far in the city had been the restoration of the domes of S. Marco, the erection of a few vegetable stalls and the continuation of Bon’s still unfinished Procuratie Vecchie.

It is impossible to understand the history of the Misericordia without reference to the parallel activity at the rival cantiere of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco. Scarpagnino had taken over at S. Rocco in 1527 after the previous proto, Bartolomeo Bon, had left in 1524 because of a dispute over the form of the staircase. The Misericordia was forced to revise Sansovino’s initial design of 1531 in response to an objection from the site’s landlords, the Moro family, to its projecting columns. Sansovino’s revised model, with engaged rather than free-standing columns, was approved in 1535, whereupon S. Rocco immediately seized the opportunity to emphasize the Misericordia’s discomfort by adding two orders of projecting Corinthian columns to its own façade. S. Rocco seized similar advantage when Misericordia failed in 1544 to agree on the form of its staircase, a crucial element in the ceremonial scenery of any scuola grande. In 1545, in direct challenge to the vacillations at the Misericordia, S. Rocco ostentatiously demolished its newly built double-ramped staircase designed by the elusive Tuscan known as “Il Celestro” and expeditiously erected the present imperial-style staircase block to Scarpagnino’s design. Whereas the Misericordia never managed to resolve its state of perpetual financial crisis, the wealth of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco increased dramatically during the century, thanks to donations from Venetians anxious to protect themselves from the plague. By 1581, not only was S. Rocco’s building completed, but it was also decorated throughout by Tintoretto, whereas the Misericordia, lacking its roof and staircase, was still unusable. The Misericordia was finally inaugurated in 1589, but its stone facing was never applied, and its massive brick carcass came to excite admiration for qualities of terribilità that had never been intended.

Scuola nuova della Misericordia
Scuola nuova della Misericordia
Scuola nuova della Misericordia

Sansovino was responsible for five complete churches in Venice, in addition to the façade of S. Geminiano in Piazza San Marco. Of these six churches, three – S. Spirito in Isola, the church of the Incurabili and S. Geminiano – were demolished during the Napoleonic period. No record survives of the drawings of “sixty plans of temples and churches of his invention, so wonderful that from antiquity until now on cannot see any that are better conceived or more beautiful than these,” which according to Vasari were left to Francesco Sansovino at this father’s death, and the son intended to have them engraved for publication.

Despite Vasari’s praise, Sansovino’s religious works are his least celebrated, in contrast to those of other Renaissance masters such as Brunelleschi, Alberti and Bramante. Yet, throughout his career he cared for the upkeep of S. Marco and his sculptural works, tapestries and intarsia designs transformed the appearance of the presbytery.

His first ecclesiastical commission in the city, for the rebuilding of the church of S. Francesco della Vigna, was a contradictory one. On the one hand, this was a project with direct ducal involvement, for Doge Andrea Gritti, whose family palace lay just in front of the church, promoted the scheme and bought the right to use the chancel as his family burial chapel, while the side chapels were purchased by the richest and most powerful noble families in the city. On the other hand, this monastery belonged to the austere Observant Franciscans, who wanted a design appropriate to their ascetic ideals.

Interior of San Francesco della Vigna

Sansovino’s design is closely modelled on that of the sister church in Florence, S. Salvatore al Monte, begun for the Observant Franciscans by Cronaca in 1499. From Cronaca’s church he borrowed the fluted Doric capitals and plain frieze, the arched side chapels and aisleless plan, and the two-storey pilastered nave with clerestory windows.

Palladio was to learn much from S. Francesco della Vigna, especially with regard to the arrangement and lighting of the presbytery and its retrochoir, the latter secluded behind the high altar to allow the congregation an unimpeded view of the nave.

Though conceived in the 1540s, S. Martino at the Arsenal was begun in 1553. The previous church of S. Martino had been planned longitudinally. Sansovino changed the axis, placing the entrance on the north side, but retaining as many foundation walls as possible from the older structure. This was a much poorer parish and no wealthy donor was at hand to pay for an Istrian stone façade. Indeed funds were so short that building proceeded very slowly, and a mere half of the church was complete by Sansovino’s death. The reminder was only finished in 1633.

San Martino at the Arsenal
San Martino at the Arsenal
San Zulian on the Merceria

In addition to his architectural projects, from the middle of the 1530s, Sansovino also embarked on a variety of sculptural projects for his employers. In Venice, Sansovino returned to a Quattrocentesque style of sculpture that drew upon his own roots in Florentine art in the late 15th century and blended in with what he judged to be the prevailing artistic climate in Venice.

Fortunately most of his sculptures still remain in situ so that the best way to appreciate his work and that of his school is by walking around the city. Probably his earliest work seen by the Venetian public was the Arsenal Madonna, which occupies the same niche in which it was first placed in 1534.

Madonna and Child, also known as Arsenal Madonna, 1534, marble
Jacopo Sansovino,

Sansovino also began to acquire important private commissions from the Venetian State and nobility. This forced him to rationalize his working procedure: the slow procedure of autograph works was generally abandoned in favour of a system in which he designed models that would be subsequently turned over to others for execution. Bronze proved crucial for many of these Venetian projects and became increasingly the sculptor’s chosen mode for sculptural expression. It was also a medium with a long tradition in Venetian sculpture but one in which Sansovino had little experience. The great advantage of bronze lay in in the ease with which an artist’s model could be transformed into a durable work of art, a facility just right for the demands imposed on Sansovino by his growing architectural commitments.

Sansovino’s bronze reliefs are among the most beautiful and original of the 16th century, a tribute to his narrative skill and to the superior capabilities of Venetian bronze casters. Bronze was the most prized and the most expensive medium for sculpture and its use in S. Marco had recently been established by the chapel of Cardinal Zen, which set a new standard for bronze sculpture in Venice. When Sansovino was asked to redesign the furnishings of the choir of S. Marco, the inclusion of relief panels in the two pergola, or tribunes, must have seemed a natural component in upgrading the appearance of the sanctum sanctorum of the church. The eight panels, six narrative reliefs and two separate figures of St Mark and his lion celebrated the miracles of the patron saint of Venice.

St Mark Rescues the Servant from Provence
(from the parapet of one of the tribunes in the choir of San Marco)
Jacopo Sansovino
St Mark and his lion (from the parapet of one of the tribunes in the choir of San Marco)
Jacopo Sansovino

The painterly style of Sansovino’s reliefs for S. Marco reached its apogee with the sacristy door. Conceived around 1545, this is one of only a few bronze doors executed in the 16th century. The door is difficult to interpret in the ill-lit conditions of S. Marco, but it repays careful looking. It is the great masterpiece of Venetian bronze relief casting, and the dramatic scenes of the Entombment (lower portion of the door) and Resurrection (upper portion of the door) show how gifted a narrative artist Sansovino could be.

Door of the sacristy of the basilica of S. Marco, 1546-1569
Jacopo Sansovino
Resurrection of Christ, detail on the door of the sacristy of the basilica of S. Marco, 1546-1569
Jacopo Sansovino

Of all of Sansovino’s contributions to the Venetian cityscape, the Loggetta is the most celebrated. Like the sculpture adorning the façade of the Palazzo Ducale opposite, the Loggetta’s decoration invoked the virtues of the Venetian Republic, especially the bronzes: Minerva or Pallas representing martial vigilance, Apollo, political harmony, Mercury, persuasive eloquence, and Peace, that divine gift conferred on the Venetians by their Evangelist, St. Mark.

Loggetta of the Campanile
Apollo, bronze statue in one of the niches of the Loggetta. The sculpture symbolised political harmony.
Venice Represented as Justice, detail of the central scene in a marble relief over the central arch of the Loggetta

One could not find a greater contrast between the Loggetta bronzes and the other great works of Sansovino’s last years as a practicing sculptor than the “giants” for the staircase of the Palazzo Ducale (by Antonio Rizzo) and the tomb for Doge Francesco Venier in the church of S. Salvatore.

The staircase received its name following Sansovino’s arrangement of the statues of Neptune and Mars in 1556. The coronation ceremony of the doge was held here against a splendid theatrical backdrop.

Scala dei Giganti (Giants’ Staircase) with Sansovino’s Mars on the left and Neptune on the right, 1483-85, marble
Antonio Rizzo
Scala dei Giganti (Giants’ Staircase), 1483-85, marble
Antonio Rizzo
Mars (left) and Neptune (right), 1554-67
Jacopo Sansovino

The classical simplicity of this funerary monument distinguishes it from the grandiloquence of other funerary monuments in Venetian churches. But still pompous! Though largely executed by Sansovino’s assistants, the tomb succeeds through its controlled opulence and the high quality of its sculptural details.

Funerary monument of Doge Francesco Venier in S. Salvador, executed between 1555 and 1561. The work is signed JACOBUS SANSOVINUS SCULPTOR ET ARCHITECTUS FLORENTINUS

Sansovino dominated Venetian sculpture around the middle of the 16th century much as his close friend Titian did painting. He was able to do so through an extensive network of followers and collaborators who perpetuated his style long after his death in 1570. The superb Scala d’Oro in the Palazzo Ducale, reserved for magistrates and other illustrious persons, gave access to the private ducal apartments and to the magistrates’ meeting rooms on the piano nobile. The stairway was executed in the second half of the 16th century following a Sansovinesque design and was brought to completion by Scarpagnino. The barrel-vaulted ceiling was richly decorated with white and gilded stucco reliefs by Alessandro Vittoria.

Palazzo Ducale, Scala d’Oro

The Art of Glass

The island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon is most famous for the art of glassblowing which has been practiced there for centuries without any major interruptions and has survived the many and varied vicissitudes of Venice’s long history.

Glass manufacture in the Venetian lagoon has its roots in the remote past: the first document in which a dominicus fiolarius, or glassmaker, appears dates from 982 (the term fiola denotes a globular glass bottle with a long neck). By 1224 a flourishing industry must have existed, since in that year the Venetian glassblowers formed a gild, or arte. In 1271 its statutes, the Capitulare de Fiorlariis, also known as matricula, or mariegola, set standards and regulations for production. A new version in Italian was produced in 1441, followed by others, the last dating from 1776.

Museo Vetrario, Murano

In 1291, by decree of the Maggior Consiglio, all the furnaces still in existence in the city of Venice itself were destroyed. We can suppose that by this stage glass production was concentrated on the island of Murano. What little evidence of have of medieval glass reveals an industry geared to the production of everyday items such as bottles, glasses and bowls, which were already being exported to German-speaking countries as well as England and France.

The art of glassblowing reached new levels of artistic expressiveness in the refined products of the Renaissance, thanks largely to the technical innovations of Angelo Barovier, the most famous glassblower of the 15th century. Through a series of complicated operations he succeeded in obtaining a particularly pure glass which, on account of this quality, became known as crystal. Between the end of 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, the most refined Murano glass, whether coloured or not, after having been shaped, was entrusted to painters who specialised in the art of decoration with polychrome fusible enamels and gold leaf. Two other varieties of glass date from the second half of the 15th century: chalcedony, which imitated striped agate, and white opaque milk glass, which was decorated with fusible enamels and imitated the Chinese porcelain that had first arrived in Venice in the mid-1450s.

Amethyst glass plate decorated with fusible polychrome enamels, 1470-80
Museo Provinciale, Castello di Buonconsiglio, Trent

The art of glassblowing continued smoothly into the 16th century, with many major technical and decorative innovations. In formal terms, there was a clear preference for simplicity. Colourless glass assumed a crucial role and there was a move away from painted decoration and forms copied from ceramics or metallurgy. The most significant expression of the elegance characteristic of Murano glass of that time was the crystal chalice or goblet, with its pure lines in which measured harmony regulates the relationship between the various parts, the base, the stem blown in the form of a small balustrade and the bowl.

Pitcher decorated with polychrome fusible enamels and gold leaf, end of 15th century
Museo Vetrario, Murano
Barovier wedding cup, blue glass decorated with polychrome fusible enamels and gold leaf, c. 1470
Museo Vetrario, Murano

The complex technique of filigree, still in use today, dates from 1527 and is linked to the name of the Serena glassblowers who obtained a ten-year franchise for producing glass a facete con retortoli a fil: crystal decorated in parallel bands with threads of milk glass or coloured glass twisted to form spiral patterns. The generic term filigree covers the different types of glass decoration that incorporate glass threads. From the 16th century onward, one of the most famous and successful versions was vetro a reticello in which slender canes of opaque white glass were laid in a crisscross pattern to form a fine netting, with a bubble of air in each lozenge.

Another type of glass typical of the 16th century was known as ice glass, from its rough translucent – but not transparent – surface. In the field of decoration, Vincenzo di Angelo del Gallo, toward the middle of the century, introduced the technique of diamond-point engraving, which enabled delicate and elegant patterns to be incised on the surface of the glass.

The technical innovations that Murano glassblowers developed spread rapidly and the fame of their products increased, especially after the frequent departures of master craftsmen whose skills were in great demand throughout Europe. Attracted by the possibility of higher earnings, these craftsmen developed, beyond the confines of the Republic, a type of product based on the art of Murano which became known as glass à la façon de Venice (in the style of Venice). This exodus of craftsmen placed the Venetian trade in great danger since Murano had had a near monopoly on the art of blown glass and its trade brought not only great wealth but also prestige to the city. The rigid regulations and harsh penalties enacted by Venice in order to punish those who transgressed the laws forbidding them to leave the island did not hamper the emergence of numerous glass furnaces in France, Austria and the Netherlands, where Murano glassblowers passed on their skills to local craftsmen, adapting the resulting products to local style.

In contrast to the formal rigor of the 16th century, 17th century glass reflects the influence of the Baroque. Purity of line, typical of the Renaissance, was abandoned in favour of free creativity, especially in search of illusionistic effects. The colourless glass was replaced by glass decorated with coloured threads in yellow and red while from the formal point of view fantasy and superabundance led to a product that was less and less functional – one created with purely ornamental aims. Once again, it was the chalice or goblet that exemplified the stylistic changes. In contrast to the preceding century, alette (little winglike forms) were now applied to the stem, while the sometimes asymmetrical bowl was frequently decorated with fine chains.

Museo Vetrario, Murano

Despite the uninterrupted activity of the furnaces, the 17th century was a difficult period for Murano. In addition to natural disasters such as famine and plague, and the consequent economic crises, there were also major problems following a fall in demand for Murano glass. Two new types of glass had appeared and were competing directly with that of the Venetians. Bohemian and English crystal, with their deep cuts and brilliance, were rapidly taking over the market. On the whole, the 17th century revealed, despite the now consolidated skills of the glass masters, the first symptoms of a major crisis that would become fully apparent during the following century.

18th century glass is characterised by a wide variety of forms, techniques and materials. In addition to the traditional vitreous materials, which were reworked with great ingenuity, the prevailing fashion for colour expressed itself in the use of vitreous pastes such as aventurine, which was often, like hard stone, cut to form boxes, snuffboxes and buttons, and chalcedony and other mixtures tinged with various colours.

The production of milk glass was also widespread. It employed 16th century decorative techniques with polychrome fusible materials and aimed at imitating porcelain, especially Chinese porcelain, extremely fashionable at the time in Venice. The Miotti family, famous for this type of glass, were the first on Murano to mark their products, which had until then remained anonymous, with a symbol that allows us to recognise their work even today.

Murano glassblowers concentrated their efforts on imitating Bohemian crystal, competition from which was strong, even within the Republic itself. One of the most successful was Giuseppe Briati, responsible for several original creations for which Murano became famous. The most celebrated of these was the Venetian candelabrum with several branches known as ciocche, to which was applied a wealth of decorative detail, usually floral, in coloured glass.

Murano glass chandelier
Large chandelier with glass polychrome flowers on the branches, Giuseppe Briati, mid 18th century
Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice

Giuseppe Briati is also credited with transforming the Venetian mirror into a refined element of interior decoration. He placed the old lacquered or gilded wooden frame with one composed of elements of carved, engraved or enamelled glass, which was then fixed to a wooden backing.

Contemporary sources also indicate that Briati was the inventor of the great table centrepieces known as deseri (from the French for dessert), made up of many elements which formed complex compositions and decorated the doge’s banqueting table on important occasions. Despite this intense activity, however, problems remained unsolved, even after a radical revision of the gild’s statutes. The fall of the Republic in 1797, the dissolution of the various gilds and the series of foreign governments dealt a fatal blow to the art of glassblowing.

The first signs of a rebirth appeared during the 1840s, thanks largely to two glassblowers, Domenico Bussolin and Pietro Bigaglia, who began to produce filigree glass. The various interlacing patterns of these filigree differed from the traditional 16th century ones in the chromatic vivacity of their fabric, highlighted by the formal simplicity of the object itself, with a slight hint of Biedermeier influence.

Bottles and vases of polychrome filigree, Pietro Bigaglia, c. 1845
Museo Vetrario, Murano

The rebirth of Murano is marked by various important events. The furnaces began to reopening. Among the first to do so was that of the Fratelli Toso (Toso Brothers). In 1861 an archive was begun in which documents relating to the history of the island were preserved. Examples of glassware were also included. This formed the beginning of the museum which during these early years also functioned as a guide to the recovery of the styles, techniques and skills of the great masters of the past. Two exhibitions were mounted, in 1864 and 1869, both of which stimulated further efforts on the part of the new generation of glassblowers.

In 1866, the year in which the Veneto region became part of a united Italy, Antonio Salviati opened a furnace on Murano. He was keenly aware of the popularity of the island’s products abroad, especially in Britain, and a few months later formed a company with a group of Britons, Salviati & Co., which in 1872 became the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company Ltd.

A search for technical and formal perfection characterises the late 19th century. Small cups, large chalices, opalescent vases and bottles all tended to be modelled on the past but strove for greater constructional precision, reviving a tradition that only a few years earlier had seemed doomed. Another problem that occupied this new generation of glassblowers was reproducing ancient glass, from pre-Roman glass with a friable core, the so-called Phoenician glass, to Roman pieces, known in general as murrini, and on Murano itself as glass-mosaic.

The intense activity that characterised Murano during the later 19th century, concentrating as it did principally on the recovery and study of the past, isolated the island from the cultural climate of the rest of Europe and North America, where Art Nouveau was dominant. A certain amount of innovation, with quotations from Art Nouveau, can be seen in a group of extremely delicate goblets in the form of flowers produced during the early years of the 20th century by Fratelli Toso, in the decorations on very fine glass by Francesco Toso Borella, and, especially, in the glass-mosaic creations by another artist, Vittorio Zecchin.

Fratelli Tosso, c. 1920
Vase by Vittorio Zecchin

In the years immediately following WWI, the furnaces stepped up production. From a stylistic point of view, they followed the rationalistic trend with its principles of simplicity and functionalism. At the same time new companies were opening up on the island and an increasing number of designers were working there. In the years between the two World Wars, artists such as Vittorio Zecchin, the sculptor Napoleone Martinuzzi, the painter Guido Cadorin, the architect Carlo Scarpa, and the etcher Guido Balsamo Stella, were collaborating with Murano glass manufacturers, contributing to stylistic and formal innovations and creating new vitreous materials and mixtures.

After the enforced lull during WWII, the furnaces reopened with renewed vigour, concentrating mainly on the study of the chromatic effects of glass and on emphasising its sculptural qualities. These new refined colours and their crucial role in the composition of original and often sophisticated vitreous materials, constitute the distinctive element of the many new companies which sprung up in the 1940s and the 1950s. During this period, a reinterpretation of the traditional Murano techniques was combined with a strong predilection for simple forms, in harmony with the criteria of functionalism.

Today, the Murano glassblowing industry is facing another crisis. The current slump, glass impresario Adriano Berengo suggests, has not simply been occasioned by the influx of Chinese copies in recent decades; it is also due to the fact that many of the surviving glass factories have pandered to the demand of tourists for objects that represent a historical idea of Murano. Where the forms of the past galvanised the 19th century glass revival, in other words, now they might be said to hold back contemporary work by clinging to an opportune market for pastiche.

Berengo has looked to counter this by introducing international artists to the properties and practicalities of glass, pushing them to experiment with this uniquely ductile, transparent material. The extraordinary Murano marionettes that feature in the final film of Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades trilogy were developed at the Berengo Studio; artists taking part in the 2017 Glasstress exhibition, which Berengo has mounted at Palazzo Franchetti every two years since 2009, included Ai Weiwei, Thomas Schütte and Laure Prouvost.

Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala (film still), 2015, Wael Shawky
Glasstress 2017

It is heartening to see contemporary artists exploring a traditional material that requires so much patience and care, and for which chance as much as conceptual precision plays such a role. Something comparable – and equally welcome – is perhaps happening in the growing prominence of contemporary ceramic art at leading international museums and galleries. Also to be praised are those dealers, such as Adrian Sassoon, who have worked so hard to promote the place of historical materials in the production of contemporary pieces.

The future of Murano also requires sustained attention to its past. That means well-curated museum displays and exhibitions to illuminate the skill of historical glassmakers and the variety of their working methods, as well as the originality of 20th century designers. It requires the clean presentation of individual objects (or groups of objects), ensuring that they are no more relegated to crowded cabinets with poor lighting (although there is of course value in looking at glass in the context of other types of object).

In Venice, thankfully, the Stanze del Vetro on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore has now been creating this kind of exhibition for several years. Since its inauguration in 2012, the gallery’s displays of modern and contemporary glass have offered a lucid reminder of the recent strength of glassmaking in Venice – and as such, as a rejoinder to those who would give up on Murano altogether.

Qwalala by Pae White at Stanze del Vetro, Venice

And then there is the Museo del Vetro in Palazzo Giustinian on Murano, which reopened in 2015 with refurbished and expanded exhibition spaces that feature a chronological display focusing on the island’s production. Though the museum has been in its current location since 1861, it now has a greater responsibility than ever: inspiring visitors to Venice to value Murano glass correctly, while encouraging the maestri to innovate afresh.

Museo Vetrario, Murano

We brought home Murano glass… in the form of cherries, what else?!? Miss Honey shows off the cherry necklace we got from Pauly & Co. in Piazza San Marco. One of the many stores that stock authentic Murano glass pieces, not the cheap Chinese copies.

Pauly & Co, Piazza San Marco
Pauly & Co, Piazza San Marco

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

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi remains unrivalled for his gift of instant memorability and his knack of cutting straight through to the listener’s musical heart. Vivaldi manuscripts were must-have souvenirs for gentleman travellers visiting La Serenissima as part of the Grand Tour.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

Venice is awash with string ensembles, bewigged or otherwise, playing Vivaldi. One group that stands out is Interpreti Veneziani.

Formed in 1987 and comprising nine members — 5 violinists, violist, cellist, bassist, and harpsichordist — the Interpreti Veneziani play over 300 concerts to approximately 70,000 listeners each year, most of them in the Chiesa San Vidal, a church where Vivaldi himself often played. The group’s repertoire includes not only an impressive number of works by Vivaldi and other Venetian composers, but also pieces by composers such as Bach, Mozart, Sarasate, Saint-Saens, and Bartok — all played with consummate virtuosity, sensitivity and humor, and without a wig in sight.

The 17th century Church of San Vidal provides fantastic acoustics for concertos and sinfonias and an intimate historic setting with exquisite paintings, such as that of St Vitale on Horseback by Vittore Carpaccio over the main altar.

Interpreti Veneziani in the Chiesa San Vidal
Interpreti Veneziani in the Chiesa San Vidal

We chose a concert that included The Four Seasons. When in Venice…

The details of Vivaldi’s life are surprisingly sketchy. Even extensive modern scholarship leaves many wide gaps in his whereabouts and activities. Biographies typically devote at most a few dozen pages to his career and the rest to his works. Indeed, only in 1962 was his birthdate determined from baptismal records to have been 1678; prior writers had placed it as early as 1669.

Vivaldi learned the violin from his father, a Venetian barber who played in the orchestra of San Marco cathedral. He was ordained in 1703 and, thanks to his flaming hair, became known as the Red Priest, but his ecclesiastical functions were forestalled by bronchial asthma, which denied him the stamina to say a complete mass. The next year he became a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for a thousand girls, of whom a few dozen received intensive musical training. In 1716, he became the music director.

Among his duties was to provide two concertos per month (even while he was away) for concerts given each Sunday by the school orchestra (in which, to the amazement of visitors, the students played all the instruments, rather than just the ones deemed suitable for ladies). Despite a bumpy relationship with the school administrators, Vivaldi enjoyed considerable freedom, not only to fill his compositions with whimsy and technical hurdles to challenge his students and display their artistry, but to travel extensively to fulfil commissions and to stage his operas. Although Vivaldi negotiated sizable fees for his work, he spent prolifically and died in poverty during a 1741 trip to Vienna, where he was given a pauper’s funeral.

The rediscovery – quite literally – of Vivaldi’s music began in the early 19th century, as a by-product of the renewed interest in the music of J.S. Bach. The pioneering Bach scholar J.S. Forkel referred in his 1802 biography to the German composer’s indebtedness to Vivaldi, and to his transcription for keyboard of his violin concertos. Over 20 Bach transcriptions were soon unearthed, including his concerto for four harpsichords and string orchestra. In 1850, over a century after Vivaldi’s death, the original work was identified by C.L. Hilgenfeldt as the tenth concerto of the Venetian composer’s Opus 3 – a concerto for four violins. Vivaldi, the composer, was on the map again, and the next 50 years saw the discovery of a good portion of the instrumental music. In 1905, a history of the concerto by Arnold Schering paid Vivaldi the compliment of him being the “exemplary for the shaping of the violin concerto” (in its three-movement, fast-slow-fast model).

It wasn’t until a 97-volume collection of manuscripts, owned by a Salesian monastery, came up for sale in 1926 that a broader representation of Vivaldi’s music was discovered. The collection was traced back to a Count Durazzo, who had purchased the lot from the Ospedale della Pietà, donated half to the monastery and passed the remainder to his heirs. Lawsuits overrode the Count’s will, which forbade publication, and private donations kept the scores intact and off the antiques market. Among them were a huge number of Vivaldi’s handwritten originals, including over 300 previously unknown works. Scholars delved through the treasure and were astounded by the unsuspected diversity and range. Since World War II, a burgeoning of biographies, catalogues, analyses, performances and recordings have led to a thorough re-evaluation of Vivaldi’s significance and a new understanding and appreciation of the scope of his art.

There have been further discoveries in subsequent decades, and the Vivaldi catalogue now lists over 500 concertos. 324 are for a single solo instrument (214 for violin, his favourite instrument), and the remainder are for multiple combinations or for orchestra without soloist.

As his first biographer Marc Pincerle noted, Vivaldi’s concerti fall into a general three-part pattern in which a majestic, vital opening and a rapid, playful finale are separated by a slow, lyrical movement of unprecedented depth, thus greatly extending the convention of the time of providing a brief, calming, functional interlude between the excitement of the outer movements. Pincherle suggests that the vitality, colour, rapidity, emotion and dramatic instinct of Vivaldi’s writing all anticipated the individualistic expression that ultimately would supplant formalism. Within his consistency of style, Vivaldi infused his work with constant variety, and although the violin was his favourite, he wrote concerti featuring nearly every instrument (other than the keyboard, curiously). Thus, Luigi Dellapiccola’s famous crack that Vivaldi didn’t write hundreds of concerti but only one concerto hundreds of times is true only in the most superficial sense and ignores the considerable invention of his work. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons is possibly the most popular classical piece of all time. There have been at least 200 recordings, and counting, and it continues to be irresistible to TV advertisers and mobile phone companies. It is piped promiscuously as telephone-hold music and into shopping malls from Buenos Aires to Bombay, and it has even infiltrated the American pop charts. Yet such is The Four Seasons’ picturesque charm and visceral energy that it has survived unscathed more than half a century of kitsch and commercialisation.

In 1725 in Amsterdam, Vivaldi published twelve violin concerti entitled Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (literally translated, The Contest of Harmony and Invention). The first four were designated Le Quattro Staggioni (The Four Seasons). In his dedication, Vivaldi alludes to his patron having enjoyed them long ago and asks that they be accepted as if they were new, thus suggesting that they had been composed and performed much earlier.

While song and opera tie music closely to words, instrumental music at best reflects an abstract overall mood, but with The Four Seasons Vivaldi decisively bridged that gap. Each of the four concertos is prefaced by a sonnet (presumably written by the composer) full of allusions ripe for sonic depiction. Thus, the first greets Spring with a profusion of birds, the breath of gentle breezes, a murmuring stream, swaying plants, a goat herd lulled to sleep and shepherds holding a celebratory bagpipe dance. Summer brings torrid heat, buzzing insects and a violent storm. Fall brings a harvest celebration and a hunt and Winter chattering teeth, stamping feet, slipping on ice, shelter by an inside fire and, for a zesty conclusion, a howling windstorm.

Not only are the individual verses printed in the score alongside the music they are intended to depict, but Vivaldi adds further phrases (“the barking dog”, “the tears of the peasant boy”, “the drunkard”) to clarify specific allusions. His music depicts some rather literally (accurate imitations of specific bird calls and pizzicato raindrops) and others metaphorically (dissonance to underline a winter chill, rapid scales to portray swirling winds.) While all this may sound like a dry schematic for a sound effects track, it all fits musically and centuries later is still enthralling to hear and enjoy. While The Four Seasons may have originated as a routine assignment for his girls to play once, Vivaldi clearly poured his heart and soul into this work.

Vivaldi himself was reputed to be a daring, “freakish” technician; one of the few accounts of his playing predicted Paganini, by describing his fingers so close to the bridge that there was barely room for the bow. Scholars who have studied Vivaldi’s autograph scores note that the published versions are often simplified to encourage accessibility, thus suggesting that actual performances were more daring. They further assume that what appears to be tedious repetitive sequencing was enlivened with extemporized variety. Yet, these works were meant for girls in a convent to display their poise before well-heeled patrons, and what may have passed for wild abandon in its time could be quite mild by modern standards.

Nigel Kennedy became well known to most people through his ground-breaking interpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and his 1989 recording of it became one of the best selling classical albums of all time. Kennedy has made a career out of being an enfant terrible and defying the musical establishment. At least underneath his clowning is a huge talent. His unique talent and improvisational technique has done much to popularise classical music, particularly among young people. But his unconventional style has put off traditionalists. Known for stretching the boundaries of classical music, Kennedy espouses the need to take on new technical challenges – “If you’re playing within your capability, what’s the point?” he asks. “If you’re not pushing your own technique to its own limits with the risk that it might just crumble at any moment, then you’re not really doing your job.” He considers it part of his job to take risks musically. He could do that without the condescension he shows traditionalists. He claims he was never going to adhere to stereotypes, yet he has no trouble stereotyping others, and, worse, calling them names. All so he can project his carefully built image of rebel with a cause. Yehudi Menuhin is probably turning over in his grave.

Earlier this month, we attended the three-hour performance of The New Four Seasons at the Perth Concert Hall. Kennedy and his 11-piece orchestra performed their new interpretation of The Four Seasons plus dedications, straddling the baroque, Russian and Polish folk, as well as a unique and powerful take on the rock ‘n’ roll of Jimi Hendrix (at which point some people walked out. Truth be told, we would have as well, but there were too many people to get past!). A quarter century after recording Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra, this new acoustic, live version of the Italian composer’s violin concerti comes with all of Kennedy’s extraordinary skill, passion and on-stage clowning, and significantly less swearing. When you go to a Nigel Kennedy concert you know you’re not going to get period Vivaldi. During his first concert in Perth in March 2006, in Kings Park, the audience also didn’t get suitable language for a family friendly concert. Or so thought the people who complained after the concert about the frequent use of the f word. That might explain why he hasn’t come back to Perth for 11 years!

Nigel Kennedy and band
Nigel Kennedy and band

Limelight reviewed the concert.

Kennedy’s New Four Seasons takes Vivaldi’s concertos as a starting point for what becomes a kind of Baroque-jazz-folk-rock fusion. The violinist treated each movement like a jazz standard. The melodies and chord progressions of The Four Seasons are so familiar that – as with well-loved jazz chart – there’s pleasure to be had in surprising departures, novel approaches and a thrill of recognition as an unusual turn leads back to the head. Pawel Tomaszewski’s amplified piano and Kupiec’s bass give the music night-club feel over the growl of Ezmi Pepper’s cello in Summer, while broken guitar chords fill in for harpsichord. Tribal beats underpin droning bass-lines as Kennedy winds exotic improvisations over the top. In the faster passages he practically head-bangs to Vivaldi’s surging rhythms. Autumn opens with Kennedy strumming his violin like ukulele against a walking bass, jazz chords from the piano setting the stage for some wild blue-grass soloing, Kennedy not afraid to rough up the sound and get gritty. Kennedy playfully sprinkles his improvisations with references, dropping a fragment from Beethoven Five into the first movement and Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner into the finale, in which his cadenza is almost an electric guitar solo. Kennedy breaks the cycle of The Four Seasons to squeeze in a lively tribute to Stéphane Grappelli – Grappelli’s upbeat blue-grass Swing 39 – before Dominic Kelly’s oboe solos kick off Winter, Kennedy showing he’s still got plenty of fiddle chops as he solos furiously in a series of fantasias on Vivaldi’s movements before a blistering finale. While this treatment of The Four Seasons might not be to everyone’s taste, the world will never lack for traditional servings, so it’s wonderfully refreshing to hear a fresh take on it. And though this rendition isn’t as heavy on electronic effects as Kennedy’s 2014 album (a 25th anniversary release of the 1989 album), the live energy of his performance is still convincing.

Nigel Kennedy
Nigel Kennedy

One of our favourite performances of The Four Seasons was by I Musici, Italy’s oldest chamber group, and also one of the most respected ensembles in existence today. Their 2015 visit to Brisbane was part of the 2015 Queensland Music Festival and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s 30th anniversary. An appreciative and enthusiastic audience received warmly the tight knit, twelve-part chamber group (who have, since their inception, existed without a conductor so as to ensure an egalitarian relationship among the twelve). I Musici’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was fresh, dynamic and brimming with energy. All this without any clowning.

I Musici
I Musici

Limelight reviewed this concert as well.

The first half of the concert included popular favourites from Vivaldi (Sinfonia in C Major) Rossini (Overture to The Barber of Seville), Mascagni (Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana) and Verdi (opening Sinfonia Nabucco). Sinfonia in C Major was a fitting first work to establish from the outset the group’s precision, range, and stylistic purity. I Musici’s affinity as an ensemble was evident throughout, each group of instruments sounding as one rich voice. It was evident that lacking a conductor is no impediment when the members of a group are so attuned to one another; with frequent glances across the ensemble and absolute professionalism, I Musici demonstrated that unanimity on technical and interpretive questions is achievable amongst twelve individual musicians.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to I Musici’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I Musici are credited with introducing 18th century Italian music to the world through their recordings of this piece, the first of which was made as early as 1955 (the group was established in 1951). Numerous recordings later, the group has a certain authority with regard to the work and delivering authentic performances of it. Hearing such a masterful performance of Vivaldi’s original work from I Musici served as a reminder that just because a piece of music has become somewhat ubiquitous does not mean that it cannot sound fresh, invigorating and incredibly alive, in a traditional performance.

The opening concerto, Spring, with its jaunty ritornello, is instantly recognizable, and I Musici’s performance was crisp and fresh. In the ensuing passage, reminiscent of birdsong, solo violinist Antonio Anselmi allowed the halting melody to follow its own natural rhythm, as opposed to slavishly observing the constant and continuous Baroque motor, conjuring a natural, idyllic sense. Some excellent work from the violas in the second movement before the dancing Allegro of the third movement brings the season to a close.

The beginning of Summer, in the minor key, was played languidly and liltingly, evoking images of woozy, drifting post-Spring celebrations. The tumultuous storm sequence in the third Presto movement featured some superb playing from Anselmi, and perfectly controlled accents and dynamics from all. The jolly Autumn opening movement featured dainty, light sections from first violin, cello and harpsichord, and the Allegro movement was powerful and triumphant.

The magnificent Winter concerto provided an excellent finish to a spectacular performance. Anselmi handled the frantic, virtuosic melodic solo line perfectly, without shying from the furious pace of the first movement. The beautiful Largo movement evoked images of warm fireplaces, and the final, frenzied Allegro maintained the groups energy to the last.

Taking stylistic liberties, but never to the point of indulgence, I Musici were true to both Baroque conventions and to the spirit of Vivaldi’s masterpiece, which sought to capture the ‘natural’ world in music. Sixty years after the release of their first recording, I Musici still play this famous suite of four concertos in a unique way, full of surprises in tone colour, tempo and ornamentation.

After four encores – three Vivaldi, one Donizettti – and a well-deserved standing ovation, the lights came up in the Concert Hall while the audience was still applauding.

Red Priest deliver a viscerally dramatic version of The Four Seasons. Since Vivaldi himself was “a maverick and a showman”, the members of the baroque ensemble Red Priest (Piers Adams, recorders; Julia Bishop, violin; Angela East, cello; and Howard Beach, harpsichord) choose to “cast aside the rulebook”. The result is refreshing. And for those wondering, the ensemble named itself after Vivaldi, who was a redhead and a priest.

Red Priest
Red Priest

Red Priest’s idiosyncratic approach is rooted in historic performance practice. The musicians merge a range of techniques, ornamentation, improvisation, articulation, bow strokes and vibrato to evoke a maximum amount of colour and make every nuance and emotion in the music larger than life. Baroque composers delighted in re-arranging music by others, quoting themes by earlier composers, or even themselves in making arrangements older works and material. Red Priest take this fluidity one step further by drawing unexpected parallels between composers from different countries and different schools to create unified concert experiences that are at once both theatrical and acutely musical. We have seen Red Priest in 2003 as part of their Musica Viva tour. They didn’t play The Four Seasons, but they played Vivaldi and Bach as part of a Baroque Fantasy concert and almost 14 years later we still remember vividly how much we enjoyed the concert.

Also in 2003, we heard Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s authentic interpretation of The Four Seasons. This was no routine, run-of-the-mill performance. The most enduringly popular of all baroque concertos for the violin came across as if freshly minted but always within the line and contour of the 18th century. Superbly synchronised, soloist and orchestra were throughout pitted against each other in insightful ways. Many factors contribute to performance, not least technical finesse and stylistic integrity, both of which were present in abundance. Over and above these crucial factors, though, was a youthful exuberance, a shared enthusiasm that elevated whatever the ABO touched to impressive levels of achievement.

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has undergone many reincarnations since it was first played by the talented orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th century Venice. In 2015, the Australian Chamber Orchestra
explored the musical connections between East and West, pairing Vivaldi’s Baroque masterpiece with original compositions by ARIA Award-winning oud virtuoso, Joseph Tawadros. The program notes for the concert quoted Islamic art specialist and Art Gallery of WA director Stefano Carboni’s book Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797:

“The artistic consequences of the dynamic relationship that Venice forged with its Islamic trading partners, especially the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans of Turkey, and the Safavids of Iran, were felt over nearly a thousand-year period. The same merchant galleys that carried spices, soap, cotton, and industrial supplies from the bazaars of the Islamic Near East to the markets of Venice also brought with them luxurious carpets, velvets, silks, glass, porcelain, gilded bookbindings, illustrated manuscripts, and inlaid metalwork. Not surprisingly, these and other portable works of Islamic art, which were often superior in quality to what was available in Europe, made an indelible impression upon artistic taste and production in Venice. From the medieval to the Baroque eras, Venetians acquired Islamic art and adapted and imitated its techniques. In turn, albeit to a lesser extent, the arts of Venice became of interest to the Islamic world.”

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Australian Chamber Orchestra

East-West connections were evident throughout the program, which kicked off with an antiphonal sonata for three violins by Gabrieli before alternating, in another form of antiphony, between Joe Tawadros’ Arabic traditional, rock, jazz and blues-inflected originals as orchestrated by Tognetti and the four concertos with comprise Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Richard Tognetti on violin, Joseph Tawadros on the oud and James Tawadros on the riq and the bendir (the former a tambourine like instrument, the latter resembling the Celtic bouro) formed the nucleus of a lineup of ten ACO string players with harpsichordist and organist Neal Peres Da Costa and lutenist and guitarist Tommie Andersson on continuo duties, that performed one of the most rhapsodic, lyrical, explosive and imaginative Four Seasons you’re ever likely to hear.

Joseph Tawadros
Joseph Tawadros

The classic pear-shape of Joe’s oud echoed the shape of Andersson’s theorbo, essentially a large lute, which instrument, and its name, is derived from the oud. Joe’s florid improvisations and elaborations of composed material echoed Tognetti’s stylish embellishments of Vivaldi’s solo-violin lines, which Joe sometimes doubled or ornamented. The driving rhythms, often underscored by James on the tambourine-like riq or bendir of Vivaldi’s sequences and hypnotic repetitions echoed Joe’s repeated bass lines and hypnotic harmonies.

More fundamentally human connections came to the fore in such works as Joe’s moving “farewell waltz” Point of Departure, written in memory of his parents, and in fleshing out the descriptive qualities of Vivaldi’s Seasons. In terms of sheer visceral virtuosity however, it was in the stormy outer movements of ‘Summer’ and the intense finale of ‘Winter’ that the whole band cut loose, with Tognetti’s and Joe Tawadros’s lightning-fast passages and improvisations taking instrumental technique to its very limits while James Tawadros and the rest of the band obliged with equally dazzling feats of ultra-tight ensemble playing. This was a Four Seasons for all seasons.