Category Archives: Europe 2007

A Night at Teatro di San Carlo

Teatro di San Carlo – auditorium view from the stage

Though it no longer rivals La Scala as a household name, nor has the contemporary cachet of Teatro La Fenice, Teatro di San Carlo is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world. Moreover, it is Italy’s oldest opera house and the oldest working opera house in Europe, having presented performances continuously since its foundation, with a few brief interruptions. To visit the Teatro di San Carlo today is to reenter the glamorous world of the theatre’s – and Naples’ – early 19th century operatic heyday, especially on a performance night, when music and spectacle work their magic and the glorious setting is further enlivened by the inimitable style and brio of the knowledgeable Neapolitan public, ever primed to proclaim fervent appreciation or haughty and withering disdain.

Theatro di San Carlo owes its origin – and its name – to the Spanish Bourbon king of Naples, Charles VII (aka Charles III of Spain and Charles V of Sicily). Following his reconquest of Naples from the Austrians in 1734, Charles not only decided to settle in the city but also began reshaping it in a style befitting an imperial capital. An enthusiastic artist and connoisseur of music, Charles regularly attended operas at the city’s Teatro San Bartolomeo but became dissatisfied with its size, facilities, and especially the inadequate access for royal carriages – there was little room in the narrow streets for an appropriately grand entrance.

Interior of the Teatro San Bartolomeo

Legend has it that a near accident, when the king’s horses stumbled on uneven pavement stones and the royal carriage almost overturned, was the last straw for Charles VII.

In 1736, he had Teatro San Bartolomeo razed to the ground and commissioned architects Giovanni Antonio Medrano and Angelo Carasale to construct a new opera house north of the new Palazzo Reale. It was a tall order, for Charles VII asked for “the largest [opera house] in Europe and in as little time as possible”, but Medrano and Carasale obliged, completing the building within eight months and ten days, in time for the theatre to open on the king’s onomastico (name day), November 4, the day of St. Charles – San Carlo. This achievement won both men much welcome royal favour, and Carasale an enviable nickname for the wonders he had worked in the sumptuous interior: “Man of Miracles”.

Charles III, King of Spain
Portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1761

With the king, his courtiers, and the cream of Neapolitan society in attendance, the Real Teatro di San Carlo (Royal Theatre of St Charles) commenced its remarkable history with a performance of Domenico Sarro’s Achille in Seiro (1737), featuring a libretto by Metastasio. True to the convention of the day, Achille was played by a woman, Vittoria Tesi; also starring were the soprano Anna Peruzzi and tenor Angelo Amorevoli. No doubt the performers faced stiff competition that night from the theatre’s magnificent interior: a horseshoe-shaped auditorium almost 30 meters long and 23 meters wide, flanked six levels of boxes – 184 in all – plus a grand royal box seating ten people. Pillars and facings were decorated with gold leaf, and the plush seats were upholstered in blue velvet – blue and gold being the official colours of the Bourbon dynasty.

Naples was already a vital musical centre, noted in particular for its outstanding stagings of opera buffa, then in vogue across much of Europe, but increasingly, too, for performances of works of opera seria, many written by southern Italian composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Cimarosa, and Giovanni Paisiello. Neapolitan musical life was at its height, dominated by Nicola Porpora, Niccolò Jommelli and Johann Adolf Hasse “the Saxon”. The superstars of the era were the castrati, the most famous of whom – including Farinelli and Caffarelli – all trained in Naples. The opening of the Teatro di San Carlo extended the city’s repertoire and bolstered its position as the musical capital of Europe.

Portrait of Farinelli by Jacopo Amigoni (c. 1755)

By the late 18th century, a sojourn in the city and a visit to the theatre became almost de rigueur for nobles undertaking the Grand Tour, and a succession of notable visitors hymned the theatre’s splendour. Attending in 1773, English music critic Charles Burney proclaimed that the Teatro di San Carlo, “as a spectacle, surpassed all that poetry or romance have painted” and adjudged it “superior to … the great French opera of Paris.”

Early in the 19th century, Joachim Murat, brother-in-law to Napoleon I, became King of Naples. In 1810, he commissioned the set designer of the Teatro di San Carlo, Antonio Niccolini, to design a new facade to assert his rule. His motivation was clearly political: Teatro di San Carlo could no longer be a court theatre connected to the royal palace, rather it had to become an edifice open to the bourgeoisie. Niccolini thus gave the San Carlo its own façade, avoiding any resemblance to the neighbouring Palazzo Reale. Its style was both austere, with arcades made of neo-antique stone, and supremely elegant, particularly in the series of fourteen columns bordering the loggia. Five bas-relief panels represent the principal mythological figures, from Orpheus to Apollo.

Following the Napoleonic Wars, the Teatro di San entered a new phase, one that would see its most glorious times – and its greatest disaster. Instrumental in its early 19th century success was a colourful Milanese entrepreneur who was to become the most famous impresario of his day and one of the most influential figures in European opera production: Domenico Barbaia.

Domenico Barbaia in Naples in the 1820s (unknown)

Born in 1778, Barbaia opened numerous cafés in Milan and made a fortune selling arms during the Napoleonic Wars before he managed to acquire the lease of the gambling tables in the foyer of La Scala. That led to a managerial role in the theatre, and in 1809 his appointment as manager of the royal opera houses in Naples, including the Teatro di San Carlo. There, Barbaia quickly established a reputation for dazzling and innovative productions that attracted an avid public following and many of the leading singers of the day. Prominent among them was the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, who became a great favourite of the king and Neapolitan opera lovers, as well as the Neapolitan tenor Giovanni David, the son of tenor Giacomo David, who had been one of the stars of the Teatro di San Carlo in the late 18th century.

Highlights of Barbaia’s early program included productions of Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale (1807) in 1811 and Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) in 1812, both of which boosted the popularity of opera seria. To exploit this new trend, as well as the talents of Colbran, in 1815 Barbaia secured the services of a rising star of opera seria, Gioachino Rossini. In return for an annual fee of 12,000 francs and a share of the takings from the theatre’s gambling tables, Rossini would compose two new operas a year and mount productions of established works. His first opera for Barbaia, Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra – written for Colbran and premiered in 1815 – was hailed as a triumph by public and critics alike.

Fortune seemed to be favouring the bold Barbaia, but his rapid rise was nearly derailed the following year by the most calamitous event in the history of the Teatro di San Carlo. On February 13, 1816, during dress rehearsals for a ballet-pantomime, a fire broke out and quickly spread through the theatre. Despite attempts to bring the conflagration under control, the entire building burned to the ground in just a few hours.

Teatro San Carlo, Naples after the 13 February 1816 fire (unknown)
Incendio del Real Teatro di San Carlo (12 February 1816)
by Salvatore Fergola

Undaunted, Barbaia assumed responsibility for reconstructing the theatre and, with the support of the new king Ferdinand IV and the services of Tuscan architect Antonio Niccolini, rebuilt in ten months. More remarkably still, Barbaia, Ferdinand IV and Niccolini did not simply restore the Teatro San Carlo to its former glory, but created something yet more splendid, a theatre that was, at the time, the largest in the world, and, very soon, the envy of all Europe.

Teatro di San Carlo in 1830 (unknown)

In front of the king and a capacity crowd of 2,500, the Teatro di San Carlo was reopened on January 12, 1817, with a performance of Simon Mayr’s Il sogno di Partenope (1817). It was on the next night that Stendhal visited. “There is nothing in all Europe … comparable to this theatre,” he wrote, “or that gives the slightest idea of what it is like.”

As in the original 18th century building, six tiers of boxes rose in a horseshoe shape around the stalls; the ornamentation and decoration were, however, yet more fabulous than before. The huge proscenium arch was decorated with a delicate bass-relief entitled Time and the Hours; the enlarged stage provided more space in the wings, to allow for the preparation of elaborate scenery and the use of horses, camels and even elephants.

Each tier of boxes was separated by a continuous frieze adorned with patters and figures derived from the antiquities of Herculaneum, just outside Naples, and finished in gold and silver leaf. The boxes were separated by square Classical columns topped with candelabras, and each one was backed by a mirror, tilted so that the occupants could see the royal box without turning and thereby take their cue – for applause, a bis (encore), or a standing ovation – from the monarch. Occupying two levels, the royal box was surmounted by what appeared to be a canopy of velvet curtains tied back with gold braid and topped by a colossal Bourbon crown, though in fact the whole elaborate structure was fashioned from papier-mâché and painted to enhance the trompe l’oeil effect.

The Bourbon crown above the royal box
View from inside the royal box

Perhaps the most dramatic feature was revealed on looking upward: a vast, circular and superbly rendered ceiling fresco, painted by Giuseppe Cammarano, showing Apollo presenting great poets – ranging from Homer to Italian poet Alfieri – to Minerva. The gods and poets perched in the clouds beneath a golden sun and blue sky, as if the fresco was a window onto the heavens. Thanks to the materials used for the interiors, there was no reverberation and sound was absorbed with no variation between different seats, giving the theatre its virtually perfect acoustics.

Ceiling in the auditorium of Teatro di San Carlo

Aside from today’s ravishing red colour scheme, with which Niccolini replaced the original blue paint and upholstery in 1854, almost all of these decorative features remain intact today, and modern visitors can savour the same awe-inspiring scene that so enchanted Stendhal and other early 19th century patrons.

This woodcut print by Giuseppe Barberis depicts the Teatro di San Carlo in 1894, close to a century after its fire incident.

True to his word, Rossini turned out two operas a year from 1816 to 1822, including Otello (1816), Ermione (1819) and La donna del lago (1819). With the composer’s star in the ascendant, Barbaia enjoyed triumph after triumph, and spectacular takings. Such was his success that in 1821 he was also appointed manager of two theatres in Vienna, the Theatre en der Wien and the Kärntnertortheater. For a time Colbran became his lover, but then she, too, fell under the spell of Rossini and left the impresario for his composer. The two men remained on good terms, but Rossini and Colbran departed for Vienna after marrying in 1822. Rossini’s farewell opera at the theatre was the much-celebrated La gazza ladra e Zelmira.

Gioachino Rossini and Isabella Colbran
In 1815 Rossini composed the title role of ‘Elizabeth, Queen of England’ especially for the Spanish prima donna. She moved with the composer – who was seven years her junior – to Bologna in 1822, where they married. She created the title role of Semiramide before retiring from singing aged 42. Colbran had a gambling problem and her health declined. Despite separating, Rossini continued to support her and always credited her as being the greatest interpreter of his music.

Quick to react to what might have been a disastrous blow, Barbaia recruited other leading lights of the opera seria scene, including Giovanni Pacini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, who was associated with the theatre from 1822 until 1838 and produced for it some of his most famous works, including Maria Stuarda (18350, Roberto Devereux (1838) and the timeless Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Even after Barbaia’s death in 1841, major composers were still drawn to the Teatro di San Carlo. Giuseppe Verdi premiered two operas at the theatre, Alzira in 1845 and Luisa Miller in 1849, but he withdrew another, Gustavo III, after Neapolitan authorities attempted to censor it.

With the focus of political and cultural power shifting northward as a result of the unification of Italy in 1861, Naples lost its status as the nation’s musical capital and the Teatro di San Carlo ceded its position as the leading opera house to La Scala. It reached its nadir in 1874, when takings fell, management could no longer pay the performers, and the house had to close for a year. Fortunately, however, Italian composers remained at the forefront of European musical movements, notably Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, as well as the Neapolitans Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea and Franco Alfano. With most remaining loyal to the Teatro di San Carlo, it quickly recovered.

Teatro di San Carlo foyer

The formation, in the late 19th century, of a house orchestra under the directorship of Giuseppe Martucci helped draw a succession of influential conductors to the theatre, including Arturo Toscanini (in 1909), Mascagni (house conductor from 1915 to 1922) and Richard Strauss, who in 1934 conducted his own works. In turn these incomers broadened the theatre’s repertoire to include foreign operas, most notably those of Richard Wagner.

During WWII, with the city occupied by the Germans and the theatre damaged by bombs and gunfire, the musicians and other staff of the Teatro di San Carlo had to stay away for more than a year. But following the Allied liberation in October 1943, performance at the theatre quickly resumed, thanks mainly to the extraordinary intervention of an English Royal Artillery officer, Peter Francis.

After coming across the ravaged but still magnificent theatre, Francis resolved to reopen it. With the backing of his superiors, he rounded up former stagehands, who set to work repairing the stage and lighting, and recruited soldiers and local buildings to reconstruct the damaged foyer. Just three weeks later, Francis held a musical revue at the theatre; as word got around, more musicians and singers drifted back, overtures and arias were performed, and, on Boxing Day 1943, the first postwar opera at the theatre, a matinée performance of Puccini’s La bohème (1896), took place. So successful was Francis that he was asked to stay on as manager, and for two years he oversaw the production of no fewer than 30 operas, featuring singers such as Beniamino Gigli and Tito Gobbi.

In the postwar era, the Teatro di San Carlo quickly regained its standing and welcomed a new influx of leading singers and conductors. Modern works began to be performed more regularly – a highlight was the Italian premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) in 1949. Yet, even as management looked to the future, the building was reflecting its age. Though its glorious auditorium was well preserved, visitor facilities and air conditioning were no longer adequate and the stage machinery was outmoded; moreover the theatre had accrued a sizeable deficit.

Thankfully, a 67 million euro grant from the Campania region funded two six-month bouts of comprehensive renovations in 2008 and 2009, including the creation of a new rehearsal hall and the restoration of the theatre’s decor. When the theatre reopened on (Mozart’s 254th birthday) January 27, 2010, with a performance of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (1791), the reconstruction was hailed around the world as a spectacular success. It was also apparently on time and on budget!

A night at Italy’s biggest and oldest opera house is a magical experience. The theatre has an opera, concert and ballet season. If you’re not going to a show, you can still soak up the building’s beauty on a guided tour. We did both – one Saturday in October 2007 we took a guided tour of the theatre in the morning, and went to all Gershwin concert in the evening. The Orchestra of the Teatro di San Carlo under conductor Wayne Marshall (who also played the piano on the night) played Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Overture, Concerto in F for piano and orchestra, Cuban Overture and the Porgy and Bess Symphonic Suite (arrangement by Russell Bennett)

Wayne Marshall (b. 1961) is an English pianist, organist and conductor.

We got one of the boxes, for the novelty. Highly recommend the stalls! More comfortable seats and a better view.

We’ll need to go back. The photos are shocking (shocking!) and it was before the grand restoration. Luckily someone else took a better photo!

In the royal box at Teatro di San Carlo on 27 October 2007

Tosca at Opéra Bastille

In the City of Light, the Paris Opéra, one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished companies, is divided between two locations separated by four kilometres, or a handful of Métro stops: the neo-Baroque Palais Garnier, inaugurated in 1875, and the modern Opéra Bastille, with its convex glass facade, which opened more than 100 years later in 1989 and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

As early as 1968, calls were being made for a new opera house in Paris to remedy the limitations of the Palais Garnier. Whether or not the City of Lights needed Opéra Bastille in addition to the Opéra Garnier is now a moot point, Opéra Bastille is here to stay, and both have found their niche without dislodging the many smaller and private theatres which also present opera.

Opéra Bastille

The prime movers in the appeal for a new opera house were composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, choreographer Maurice Béjart and actor and director Jean Vilar. Boulez in particular called for an “integrated solution”, a cité de la musique that would feature a theatre and a conservatory (since the Conservatoire de Paris was old and delapidated). Fierce debate raged as to what else should be included in such a musical city. Other buildings that could be added were homes for the contemporary music ensemble and the Orchestre de Paris (since the city lacked a modern symphonic hall). The model for these integrated ideas was, to some degree, the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Only a new opera house aroused any real enthusiasm, and in 1981 the idea found favour with the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and especially with the new Socialist French President, Francois Mitterrand. The location for the new opera house also had several contenders: La Villette was the early favourite, but eventually the Place de la Bastille was chosen. In 1981, it was argued that the Palais Garnier was an old-fashioned, elitist institution and that there was a need for a more progressive opéra populaire, hence the symbolic (cynics would say public-relations) selection of the Bastille site. The decision to split the opera house from the other proposed parts of the “musical city” also gained favour, even though this contravened the ideology of the initial project.

President Mitterrand announced the competition to design the new opera house in 1982; the rest of the “musical city” would be built in La Villette, although it was to become mired in political manoeuvring. Importantly it was decided that the new opera house would occupy a central place in the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July, 1789, during the French Revolution.

The Opéra Bastille Public Establishment competition received hundreds of entries. Three finalists were chosen and in November 1983, President Mitterrand selected the winner – an unknown Canadian-Uruguayan architect named Carlos Ott, who moved to Paris to oversee the project.

There are several accounts of variable accuracy of how the design was chosen; that the president pointed at the wrong model, that the jury was sure that they had chosen the design of the superstarchitect of the moment, Richard Meier. According to Georges Poisson, whose book, Les Grands Travaux des Présidents de la Ve République provides a readable and perceptive account of all the major projects built in Paris from the Centre Pompidou (1977) to the Musée du Quai Branly (2005), the jury, without much enthusiasm, presented Mitterrand with a shortlist of six projects from among the 757 entries. The president then eliminated all but two and then added a third before choosing Carlos Ott’s design over that of Christian de Portzamparc, who proposed a more radical remodelling of the Place de la Bastille, filling the entire triangle from Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine to Rue du Lyon and thus building over Rue du Charenton.

It turns out, Richard Meier had entered the opera competition but was eliminated in the first cut, together with other architectural stars such as Charles Moore, Kisho Kurokawa and the Miami firm Arquitectonica. As designers often do, these architects had taken liberties in interpreting the competition program. The French bureaucrats who had originally promoted the idea of a modern people’s opera and who were advising the jury were having none of that. The bureaucrats had written a 423-page competition program minutely describing the new opera (including a schematic plan of the building), and they expected it to be slavishly followed. That is what Ott – and he alone – had done.

So while the jury did, according to Poisson, think that it saw the “hand of Meier” in Ott’s design, the design was exactly what the French bureaucrats asked for. In the end, the French got what their bureaucrats wanted: not the most beautiful opera house in the world, but the biggest (despite its smaller seating capacity, the Opéra Bastille complex is three times larger than the Met) and technologically the most advanced. The French have an abiding faith in new technology – which they often invent with considerable skill – and what is most innovative about the Opéra Bastille is not the architecture but the engineering. More than half of the Bastille site is taken up by enormous backstage facilities, which include not only a rehearsal hall, a mobile orchestra pit, a turntable, and a mobile stage that is also an elevator but also eleven ancillary scenery stages on two levels, joined together by an automated system of motorised trolleys. The purpose of all this space and machinery is to permit the rapid rotation of different operas: while one is being performed, another can be in rehearsal, and scenery for a third can be made ready on the lower level. It is a marvel of engineering, and despite some opening-night mishaps it all does appear to function as intended.

The stage of Le Grande Salle

Ott’s efforts to fit his building into the Place de la Bastille were surely made more challenging by the building’s blankness, its pure geometric forms, especially drums, and all the smooth gridded surfaces. So tight is the site that there is no space from which the opera house can be seen to advantage, except perhaps from the base of the column (Colonne de Juillet), were one courageous enough to brave the hazardous traffic. To make matters worse, the main facade of the Opéra is partially obscured by a small, undistinguished building housing a brasserie. At the time of construction, historians believed that a 19th century building on this site had originally been a 17th century neighbour of the Bastille prison. This turned out not to be the case, but by then the building had been torn down, so a replica, based on an old engraving, was built in its place.

The design was devised, chosen and constructed during the zenith of historicist post-modernism. Carlos Ott has described the design as “a functional project which is not essentially aesthetic.” Indeed, as much as such a thing is possible, Ott has reduced the aesthetic experience to a minimum. This is a building in which everything that is not granite is stainless steel, everything that is not white is black, and everything, absolutely everything, is obsessively arranged according to a square grid – the window mullions, the seams of the granite slabs and the stainless steel panels, the joints of the paving, even the supports of the railings. The same graph-paper motif and the same palette, if one can call it that, are continued in the interior.

The Opéra Bastille was ill-starred from the start. In 1984, for two months, Jacques Chirac, the right-wing mayor of the city of Paris, refused to grant a building permit for the left-wing president’s new opera house. In 1985, the newly appointed artistic director, Jean-Pierre Brossmann, resigned, apparently unwilling to bend to one of the exigencies of a people’s opera – fewer rehearsals and more performances. In July 1986, the building site was shut down completely for two weeks; political wrangling had broken out again between Chirac, newly elected as prime minister, and Mitterrand, and it threatened to scuttle the opera completely. In 1988, Mitterrand won a second term as president, the socialists were returned to power, and a plan to build a reduced version of the Opéra was revived – it remained to complete the building for its opening on Bastille Day, July 14, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Then, in January 1989, the conductor Daniel Barenboim, who had been named artistic director only two years before, was abruptly fired; his programming ideas had been judged too “elitist” (Barenboim had proposed Mozart!). His dismissal caused an international stir: prominent conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta and Sir Georg Solti said that they would have to reconsider their association with the Paris Opera; Pierre Boulez, the director Patrice Chéreau, and the singer Jessye Norman (who was to sing at the inaugural) all resigned in protest. “What’s the difference between the Titanic and the Opéra Bastille?” went a Parisian joke. “The Titanic had an orchestra.”

Well, the Opéra didn’t sink, and it did acquire a new music director and conductor, albeit not a famous one: Myung-Whun Chung, a young Korean-American previously best known as the younger brother of the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung. Chung was fired himself, in 1994. In 1995, James Conlon became conductor and music director of Paris Opera, leaving in 2004, the longest of any conductor at Paris Opéra since 1939. In 2009, Philippe Jordan took on the post of music director at the Paris Opéra and amazingly he is still there, making him the longest of any music director to date. He has been appointed music director of Vienna State Opera from 2020, so Paris Opéra might find itself without a music director again, as it did in the intervening period between Philippe Jordan and James Conlon.

Back to Opéra Bastille, after the building permit was granted in 1984, the Gare de la Bastille, which had been closed since 1969, was demolished and construction began. The main theatre, known as La Grande Salle, was designed with 2,703 seats, each acoustically consistent. The seating plan, which is devoid of boxes and which allows every patron an unrestricted view of the stage, is a defiantly egalitarian riposte to Palais Garnier. However, since its opening, the acoustics have been described as disappointing. The auditorium of La Grande Salle is decorated in blue granite, pearwood and glass.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

Originally there were three additional theatres in the plan. L’Amphithéâtre is decorated in Classical Greek style with white breccia marble and seats 450, while Le Studio features white marble and pearwood, and has a capacity of 237. However, because La Salle Modulable (for baroque and contemporary works and with seating for between 600 and 1,500) was largely intended for the groups that would occupy the rest of the musical city, it was moved to that site in La Villette.

L’Amphithéâtre Bastille, at Opéra Bastille
Le Studio Bastille, at Opéra Bastille

In keeping with the ideology under which the new opera house was announced, Ott’s design had the “opaque cube” of the theatre “wrapped in gridded walls of glass”, allowing the outside world to see in. The lobbies are located immediately behind the curved glass wall and take advantage of the view in a manner common to many modern concert halls.

Foyer at Opéra Bastille
Le Foyer panoramique at Opéra Bastille

It is at night that Place de la Bastille achieves a magical quality with its spotlit column topped by a gilt Hermes, and Ott’s chief architectural conceit becomes apparent: to establish a dialogue between the building and the square by emphasising the transparency of this huge building.

Place de la Bastille

The heart of an opera house, at least for the audience, is the hall itself. The greatest constraint on the design of any performance space is its size: the greater the number of seats, the more difficult it is to achieve visual and acoustic intimacy. Some opera houses have limited their capacity to fewer than two thousand seats – Berlin’s Deutscher Oper, Milan’s La Scala and the Palais Garnier. At the other end of the scale are enormous modern halls like New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with 3,800 seats. At 2,700 seats, the Opéra Bastille steers a middle course. Although there are several tiers of loges, the layout, unlike the horseshoe-shaped Palais Garnier, is predominantly frontal, with two steep balconies.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

The Opéra Bastille has what one could call a modern sound: clear but not especially resonant. The sound appears to lack warmth, but perhaps that’s a psychological reaction to the decor. Opéra Bastille has what one would call a cool decor: the walls covered in grey granite and black wood, an undulating ceiling of white glass, and seats upholstered in black fabric. The interior of Opéra Bastille is distinctly impersonal – imperturbable and sleek in a corporate-boardroom sort of way, which perhaps reflects the architect’s previous experience managing projects for a real estate developer.

The Opéra Bastille is obviously intended to be a modern rethinking of the traditional opera house, but in turning away from la grande cuisine bourgeoise of the Palais Garnier, Carlos Ott has eschewed nouvelle cuisine and instead has provided the Parisian public with the architectural equivalent of bread and water. Moreover, because many of the details are crude and the workmanship is sloppy, the bread is not even a crusty baguette; this is American-style sliced bread!

We got to experience all this in 2007 when we attended a production of Tosca in November. During the transport strike and the unseasonably cold weather.

Puccini’s Tosca is no stranger to the stages of Paris. Alongside Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro and Bizet’s Carmen, Tosca has become a staple of Paris’ opera houses.

However, such popularity opens up challenges. With familiarity comes the problem of retaining freshness and novelty, how to hold the work back from crossing the line between popularity and predictability.

In May 1994, the Opéra Bastille commissioned a new staging of Tosca from director Werner Schröter, a German film director, who turned to theater and opera in Germany and abroad from the late 1980s. From 1994 to 2012, when Parisians wanted to see Tosca at Opéra Bastille , they had to be satisfied with the functional but tiresome production of Werner Schröter. A functional production for a functional theatre?

Being German, there was great efficiency in the setting in space and displacements of the sets, the clarity of the relations between the characters, the correctness of the costumes, the control of the light… The staging did not create any obstacles for the singers, possibly because there was so little of it!

The church of the first act might have been one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons after a bombing, except for the statue of the Virgin at one side and Cavaradossi’s religious painting on the other. But the decapitated saintly head of the painting was hardly the Mary Magdalene of the libretto (a St. Catherine, perhaps?), and even less one that Floria Tosca could be jealous of.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The second act, the most successful of the three, suggested a palace-prison interior, with the hint of a marble wall and the dimensions of a large salon indicated in blood-red lines. The playing area, which had only Scarpia’s huge table as furniture, was surrounded by horizontal apertures occupied by motionless guardians.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The third act, an abstract top level of the Castel Sant’Angelo, didn’t have the statue of St. Michael that tops it in real life, but an image of a falling Satan or Lucifer to parallel Tosca’s leap into an interior void.

It was an abstract (and to some visionary) conception of what is one of the most realistic of operas – set in real locations in the Rome of 1800 and in the midst of real events. Schroeter strived to erase the excess of pathos of the story, and together with the abstract setting, this did not please literalists.

As described by Puccini’s biographer Mosco Carner, Tosca is a story of “sex, sadism, religion and art, a masterfully mixed dish served up on the platter of a major historical event”. Originally a French play by Victorien Sardou, Puccini was immediately inspired by the plot and sought to compose an operatic version, vastly reducing the lengthy original play as he did so. However, Puccini retained the essential ingredients: Mario Cavaradossi, a young aristocratic painter with a Republican loyalty, Tosca, a famous and religiously pious singer, as jealous as she is passionate, and Scarpia, a Roman chief of secret police hungry to satiate both his official duties and carnal desires.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca and Franck Ferrari as Scarpia at Opéra Bastille in 2007

Forming an intricate triangle of love, jealousy and deceit, Mario, Tosca and Scarpia provide a passionate tale, full of varying emotions and characters, each with their own motivations and impulses.

Schroeter’s direction of the singers, and other scenic detail, was uneven. Here too, Act 2 was the most successful, with the Tosca-Scarpia conflict carefully worked out and spectacularly culminated, with Scarpia expiring on the part of the desk not occupied by his unconsumed dinner. But much was made of Cavaradossi’s wounded hands, although Scarpia makes it clear that the painter’s head was where torture was applied. He dictates his third-act aria to an accommodating jailer, an aria that does not represent a letter but an erotic reverie. The corpse of a royalist soldier in Act 3 is never explained, and Tosca observes the execution of Cavaradossi improbably from directly behind the target.

After 11 years, what I remember most is watching an opera sung in Italian with French surtitles and concurrently translating it in my mind in two more languages. Quite a cacophony of words. Opéra Bastille has since introduced English surtitles (grudgingly I am sure!) and our next opera, Verdi’s La forza del destino should be a different experience.

Modern since 1669

This year Opéra National de Paris celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding by Louis XIV on June 28, 1669. Embroidered above the Palais Garnier’s thick velvet curtain is the date: Anno 1669.

Modern since 1669 is the slogan chosen by the Stéphane Lissner, the Paris Opera’s director, for the anniversary program of this year.

This year’s program includes new productions of Les Troyens, the two-part epic by Berlioz that opened the Bastille Opera in 1989 (Bastille Opera is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year), along with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, a rare rendering of Scarlatti’s Il Primo Omicidio, and most importantly, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Yes, most importantly, because little bears will be attending a performance of Don Giovanni in June to cheer on beary friends! 🙂 And look how happy they are about it!

Nicole Car, soprano, and Etienne Dupuis, baritone, will play in Don Giovanni at Paris Opera

The new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will be directed by Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove and will feature design work by two of van Hove’s frequent collaborators: Jan Versweyveld (sets and lighting) and An D’Huys (costumes). A co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, the opera is expected to play at the New York opera house in a future season.

Flemish stage director Ivo Van Hove won two Tony Awards for best director and best revival for his production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.

The Académie d’Opéra (it was renamed Académie Royale de Musique in 1672, but it was better known as the Opéra) performed mainly at the Palace of Versailles and the Palais Royal in Paris. When the 1789 revolution put the royal palaces out of the music business, performances soon resumed, first in the Salle Montansier in 1794, then from 1821 at the Salle Le Peletier.

Today, France is a republic and the Académie Royale de Musique has become the Académie Nationale de Musique.

And Palais Garnier is the 13th theatre to house the Opéra National de Paris.

Puffles and Honey in front of Palais Garnier in 2014

In 1858, Napoleon III authorised Baron Haussmann, supervisor of the reconstruction of Paris, to clear 12,000 square metres of land required to build a new opera house for the company. This theatre would be in addition to the 1821 Salle Le Peletier. In 1860, the boundaries of the new building were set between the rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin, the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins and the passage Sandrie. A competition, the first of its kind in France, was announced and architects were invited to submit their proposals for the building, but they were given only one month in which to proffer their entry. Despite this short timeframe, 171 entries were received. All submissions were anonymous, identified by numbers and slogans. The winner, announced on May 29, 1861, was the unknown architect Charles Garnier. His motto was a quote from Italian poet Torquato Tasso: Bramo assai, poco spero, loosely translated “I aspire to much, I expect but little”.

Jean-Louis Charles Garnier (1825-1898)

Charles Garnier (6 No­vem­ber 1825 – 3 Au­gust 1898) was much more than one of the most audacious architects of his time; this former student of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, winner of the Grand Prix de Rome in 1848, also made his mark as a writer (he was a member of the Société des gens de lettres) and a caricaturist who specialised in portraits. His approach was based on a blending of the arts and various cultures. A great traveller, he roamed the Orient with the writer Théophile Gautier.

Garnier was twenty-three when he won the Grand Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for arts students that was established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France. Winners were awarded a bursary that allowed them to stay in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the state.

Salle Le Peletier had been constructed as a temporary theatre in 1821. Street access to that theatre was greatly constricted, and after an attempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Napoleon III at the theatre’s entrance on 14 January 1858, it was decided to build a new opera house with a separate, more secure entrance for the head of state.

Applicants were given a month to submit entries. There were two phases to the competition, and Garnier was one of 171 entrants in the first phase. He was awarded the fifth-place prize and was one of seven finalists selected for the second phase. The second phase required the contestants to revise their original projects and was more rigorous, with a 58-page program, written by the director of the Opéra, Alphonse Royer, which the contestants received on 18 April. The new submissions were sent to the jury in the middle of May, and on 29 May Garnier’s project was selected for its “rare and superior qualities in the beautiful distributions of the plans, the monumental and characteristic aspect of the facades and sections”.

Garnier was only thirty-four years old when he won the competition for the opera house and all he had built to date was an apartment house on Boulevard Sébastopol. He didn’t even have an office and had to quickly establish one on site at the opera house.

Garnier’s wife Louise later wrote that the French architect Alphonse de Gisors, who was on the jury, had commented to them that Garnier’s project was “remarkable in its simplicity, clarity, logic, grandeur, and because of the exterior dispositions which distinguish the plan in three distinct parts – the public spaces, auditorium, and stage … ‘you have greatly improved your project since the first competition; whereas Gi­nain [the first-place winner in the first phase] has ruined his’.”

Concrete foundations were laid in January 1862, but the depth of the basement meant that the site stayed wet no matter what steps were taken. Garnier installed eight steam engines that pumped continuously, 24 hours a day, from March to October, to drain the site. Still, the problem would no go away, so Garnier built a double walled foundation sealed with bitumen to keep moisture away from the opera house’s foundations, as well as a large cistern that would collect water away from the building’s foundations and act as a reservoir in case of fire. You can see this reservoir in the classic French film La Grande Vadrouille, directed by Gerard Oury. Today, Paris firefighters train here.

Because of this cistern, the idea persists that the Palais Garnier was built over a subterranean lake, a feature of Gaston Leroux’s serial Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, which was first published in book form in 1911. Garnier’s substructure for the building was complete by the end of 1862.

Napoleon III’s desire to see a model of the building as it was envisioned resulted in another remarkable development in the construction of the opera house. Sculptor Louis Villeminot created the model in 1863 at enormous cost (8,000 francs). The emperor then requested several changes to both the model and the building design, and the altered model went on display to the French public so that they could see what was being built.

One legend about Charles Garnier’s victory in the competition to design the theatre was that the Empress Eu­génie, possibly upset that her favourite candidate (the architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc) had not won, asked Garnier: “What is this? It’s not a style; it’s neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI.” Garnier is said to have replied: “Why Ma’am, it’s Napoleon Trois, and you complain!” Whatever the source of the phrase, this defining term has come to characterise the magnificent opulence of the building, as well as its representation of the style of the Second Empire and the Emperor who had it created: ambitious, confident, and forward-looking.

As the magnificent façade was being constructed, it was hidden from view by scaffolding, which was removed in 1867 in time for the Paris Exposition.

Façade of Palais Garnier in 1867
Palais Garnier

Above the vast Corinthian columns was an entablature with the inscription “Académie Impériale de Musique”. When Napoleon III was deposed in early September 1870, one of the first actions of the Third Republic was to change the inscription to Théâtre National de l’Opéra, so emblematic of the old regime had the theatre become. Work stopped on the theatre during the siege of Paris from September 1870 to January 1871. Garnier’s preparations were so complete and reliable, that throughout the siege the theatre was used as a warehouse to store food and as a hospital.

After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Garnier fell ill and left for Italy to recuperate, leaving his assistant Louis Louvet in charge. During the Paris Commune of 1871, the National Guard was quartered inside the building and charged with its defense as well as distributing the provisions housed there. The Commune wanted to replace Garnier, but in May the National Guard was driven from the building by Republican troops and the replacement architect (whose identity is not known) never took up his position. Almost as if the loss of the theatre by the Commune troops symbolised the defeat of the Commune itself, it fell within a week. Work resumed on the theatre four months later, in September 1871.

Unfortunately the whole building project and Garnier himself were associated with the Second Empire, something to which the new Republican government took a particular dislike. Garnier found securing further funding difficult, and he had to scale back the scope of the building. On October 28, 1873, that opposition disappeared when the Salle Le Peletier burned to the ground. From that moment on, work on the new theatre accelerated without interference until its completion in 1874. After finishing the opera house, Garnier retired to Italy, although he returned to France for various commissions including Jacques Offenbach’s tomb in the Montmartre Cemetery. He also designed the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.

The opening night on January 5, 1875, was a grand gala concert featuring the overtures to Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) and Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), the first two acts of Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera La Juive (with Gabrielle Krauss in the title role), along with The Consecration of the Swords from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1836 opera Les Huguenots and the 1866 ballet La source with music by Léo Delibes and Ludwig Minkus. As a soprano had fallen ill, one act from Charles Gounod’s Faust (1859) and one from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1868) had to be omitted. Nevertheless, the evening was an enormous success.

Inauguration of the Paris Opera in 1875, by Édouard Detaille (1878)
Collections of the Château of Versailles

The president of the Republic, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, was present, as well as other dignitaries including King Alfonso XII of Spain and the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William James Richmond Cotton. During the intermission Charles Garnier stepped out onto the landing of the grand staircase to receive the approving applause of the audience. He had been obliged to pay for his own seat for the gala concert, because the organisers forgot to invite the architect to the gala concert, or perhaps as some kind of anti-imperial statement.

The monumental and opulent design of the theatre is evident in almost every aspect of its architecture and decoration. Marble friezes, Classical columns, lifelike statues and bronze embellishments adorn every room in Baroque sumptuousness. One contemporary critic scathingly described the theatre as “looking like an overloaded sideboard”. while French composer Claude Debussy later expressed the opinion that the outside was reminiscent of a railway station and the interior looked like a Turkish bath. Despite these negative comments, today the Palais Garnier is regarded as a masterpiece of the Beaux Arts period of Neo-Baroque style.

The least one can say is that the opera house’s facade is an eclectic style. With arcades, columns, gilding, cupolas, and winged horses, it is pure aesthetic excess, miles away from the traditional neoclassical edifices fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. Garnier was a convinced partisan of poly-chromism, using contrasts of scale, materials and colours throughout the design. This was a heresy in a traditional monochrome Parisian setting.

Garnier made maximum use of the diamond shape plot allocated to the opera house by Haussmann. Garnier tried in vain to change the shape of the plot, but Haussmann considered the roads and the traffic flow more important. To the usual rectangular shape, Garnier added two side pavilions: one as a private entrance for season ticket holders and one as private entrance for the Emperor. The Emperor was to reach this entrance via a driveway worthy of a château. This is the only exception to the total symmetry of the building. Garnier was criticised for sacrificing the law of parallelism to courtly flattery.

Aerial view of Palais Garnier

Garnier also wanted the building’s various parts to be symbolically identified from the exterior. The pedimented top holds the stage house, the great cupola represents the audience seating, the loggia reminds us of the public foyer.

Garnier claimed only one source of inspiration: the Grand Theatre de Bordeaux by Victor Louis. As in Bordeax, the entrance to the building serves to condition the audience, welcoming them into a world of opulence. First one must pass under the arcades, then cross a low vestibule, like a kind of airlock, before discovering and inevitably being overwhelmed by the legendary grand staircase. This approach is also reminiscent of the placement of the narthex before the nave in great Romanesque churches like the Vezelay Abbey.

The Palais Garnier auditorium features the traditional Italian horseshoe shape, and is decorated in red and gold. The huge stage, the largest in Europe, can accommodate 450 performers, and the canvas house curtain was painted to represent a draped curtain with braid and tassels. Jules Eugene Lenepveu painted the ceiling which featured an immense, 7 ton, bronze chandelier designed by Garnier. The chandelier was criticised as it obscured both the view of the ceiling and the view from the fourth tier of boxes. In 1964, the original ceiling was replaced with scenes from 14 operas, painted by Marc Chagall. This new painting was installed on a removable frame that covers the original Lenepveu work. The Chagall painting has also been criticised because, according to some, it detracts from the carefully orchestrated decorations of Garnier’s design.

Palais Garnier main auditorium chandelier and ceiling painting by Marc Chagall
Palais Garnier main auditorium

The actual theatre, which occupies only a quarter of the public surface area, seats 2,000. At the time it was built, acoustics were still supervised directly by architects, who proceeded intuitively. Garnier even referred to acoustics as a “bizarre science” since some of the advice he received was seriously bizarre. In the end he decided to leave it to chance and do nothing at all specifically for good sound. By sheer damn luck, it worked out. Although during some performances, the sound can seem slightly muffled, probably due to the large amount of velvet and carpeting in the theatre. Conductors must therefore strive to obtain the maximum amount of subtlety from the orchestra.

Palais Garnier auditorium ceiling by Marc Chagall

One of Garnier’s specialties was the design of staircases, and the sweeping Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier is almost as famous as the theatre itself. Built from various types of marble, this double staircase leads from the foyers to the different levels of the auditorium. The ceiling above the staircase is painted to represent different allegories of music, while the foyers offer lavishly decorated spaces in which audience members can mingle. The Grand Foyer, which was restored in 2004, was built to resemble a château. Its dominant decorative element is the lyre, which appears on the capitals of the columns, on grates, and even on doorknobs. Paul Baudry painted the ceiling to represent various moments in the history of music.

The foyer’s succession of mirrors evokes the famous Hall of Mirrors at the Chateaux de Versailles. Also striking are the sculpted allegories filigreed throughout the building in typical industrial revolution fashion. A second foyer, known as the dance foyer, is less well-known to the public. Garnier placed it behind the main stage to be used as an extension for scenes requiring particular depth. The dance foyer was accessible to season ticket holders only, who chose their dancers in a brothel like decor. A decor with a false air of innocence, the double arch of the ceiling hides a secret gallery for voyeurs. It was only in 1935 when this questionable practice was stopped and the season ticket holders were forbidden access. The dance foyer became what it was always meant to be, a space for dancers to practice.

Palais Garnier Grand Staircase
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer ceiling

The original design called for huge quadriga statues to crown the façade. These were never completed, and were replaced with guilded bronze sculptural groups by Charles Gumery, which represent Harmony and Poetry, and were installed in 1869. Two decorative medallions with the letters “N” and “E” (representing Napoleon and Emperor) were included in the original design, but the letters were not ready when the façade was unveiled. However, these medallion letters were added in 2000 during the restoration work on the opera house.

Palais Garnier main auditorium

In addition to the main auditorium, the opera house includes several other spaces, such as a number of rehearsal rooms, salons, and a restaurant (which only opened in 2011, a lovely piece of architecture by Odile Decq, whose organic shape blends perfectly with the Napoleon III style). The Salon du Glacier has a ceiling painted by Georges Clairin depicting dancing fauns and bacchantes as well as tapestries illustrating a variety of drinks. One space that was never actually finished is the Rotonde de l’Empereur, one of the rooms Garnier had to curtail during the opposition of the early Republican government. The Rotonde de l’Empereur now houses the library-museum that records the history of the Opéra National de Paris and features permanent displays of paintings, drawings, photographs, and set models from the productions at the theatre. The unfinished dressed blocks of stone can be seen as they were left in 1870 when the work on a space intended for the Emperor himself had to be abandoned.

Little bears can hardly wait to run up and down the grand staircase and the grand foyer 🙂

Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Staircase

Or to see the recently restored ceiling mosaics in the entrance foyer.

Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling

And the big question is, can little bears get opera cake at the Opéra restaurant? For breakfast?

Palais Garnier l’Opéra Restaurant

Just in case the answer is ‘non’ they are having some now, while watching a documentary on the opera house.

It’s been too long since little Puffles and Honey spent a beautiful operatic evening at Palais Garnier, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) and guests Yvonne Naef (mezzo soprano), Mikhail Petrenko (bass) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) in a concert titled La passion du chant. It was November 2007 and we, along with everyone else in the audience, had to brave the transport strike and the cold wave to get to the theatre. There were difficulties organising the concert as well, there were no stage lights, but that created a greater intimacy for the evening of songs by Mussorgsky and Messiaen.

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.

Arsenale

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.