Category Archives: Europe 2010

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

Andrea Palladio in Venice

“They were created in a short time for all time. Each one of them in its beauty was even then and at once antique, but in the freshness of its vigour it is, even to the present day, recent and newly wrought.” Plutarch’s description of the buildings of the Acropolis provides a concise definition of classical architecture, and if any buildings since antiquity fulfil these criteria, the architecture of Andrea Palladio does. The crisp lines, elegant proportions, and classicizing porticos of his houses and churches are immediately identifiable and combine functionality with beauty in a way that is both modern and timeless.

Palladio’s career spanned most of the 16th century, the period of the High Renaissance in his native Veneto, but his career was unusual compared to that of the other great Renaissance architects like Bramante and Michelangelo. For one thing, Palladio never trained as an artist but rather as a stonemason, gradually working his way up from the workshop to become the unofficial first architect of Venice by his death in 1580. For another, his style, widely appreciated and imitated by his contemporaries, also gave rise to one of the most influential and enduring of architectural movements: Palladianism became an article of faith in the 18th century and spread Palladio’s gospel from Potsdam to Providence.

Born in 1508 in Padua in northern Italy, Andrea Palladio spent most of his adult life in the nearby city of Vicenza. Palladio’s early years were remarkable by the standard of his times. His talent was recognised and developed by the humanist poet and scholar, Gian Giorgio Trissino, and further stimulated by his encounters with Rome and with Barbaro’s systematic approach to the antique. In Vicenza, he was groomed by influential backers to assume the position that Jacopo Sansovini, Michele Sanmicheli and Giulio Romano held in their own cities, Venice, Verona and Mantua respectively. Palladio had the genius to rise to the challenge; by 1550, he would take his place among the great architects of the previous generation.

Although Palladio’s designs are not to be seen along the Grand Canal in Venice, when standing by the Punta della Dogana, the Old Customs House at the entrance to the Grand Canal, one takes in the most miraculous of all views of Venice: the Doge’s Palace and Sansovino‘s Library of San Marco stand to the east with San Giorgio Maggiore across the bay, while the Redentore closes the scene triumphantly to the west.

San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore were designed by Palladio and represent his contribution to the city’s appearance. They also embody his mature statement of what he would call Christian temples, a merging of the classical and contemporary in a new kind of architecture comparable to his achievement with villas and palaces.

The island of San Giorgio Maggiore

The rebuilding of the church and convent of San Giorgio Maggiore was Palladio’s largest ecclesiastical project. The antiquity and setting of San Giorgio make it central to the history and ceremony of the city. A church had existed from 790 on the island of San Giorgio, which Doge Tribune Memmo gave to the Benedictine order in act of donation in 982. The doge and government officials visited the church every year on the feast of Saint Stephen to venerate his relics, a ceremony dating from the 12th century. The original monastic complex was extensively restored in the 13th century and again in the early 15th. Shortly before 1500, a large dormitory wing had been begun behind the pre-Palladian church, the architect for which was Giovanni Buora. Buora or his son Andrea may have been the author of a comprehensive project for renewal of the monastery and church proposed around 1521-22. This project included a new cloister already begun in 1516, but little else was accomplished except for laying out a new refectory. An oblong room some 10 by 30 meters, the refectory had only been constructed up to the height of its roundheaded windows upon Palladio’s arrival in 1560. He then transformed what would have been a conventional room into something more dramatic by endowing it with a classical cornice, cross vaulting and three thermal windows. These interventions turned the room into something reminiscent of a Roman bath, and the interior was further embellished by Paolo Veronese’s Marriage at Cana.

Sketch of San Giorgio Maggiore Refectory
Refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore
Marriage at Cana, 1563
Paolo Veronese

Equally important and even more dramatic are the sequence of spaces that bring the visitor from the cloister to the refectory. Here the main problem facing Palladio was to provide a transition within a confined area to the refectory half a story above. This he achieved by raising the height of the small vestibule and filling it with a staircase dominated by an imposing portal. The doorway is based upon a classical portal in Spoleto, one that Michele Sanmicheli occasionally employed in his architecture, but Palladio has enlarged it to a superhuman scale that rivets our attention.

Vestibule of the Refectory, San Giorgio Maggiore

Palladio’s flair and ingenuity here convinced the Benedictine monks to entrust him with providing a model for their own basilica in 1565. By this date, the dilapidated nature of the old church would have been glaringly apparent, especially since the other main monastic churches in Venice had been rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. A wooden model of the new church was fashioned by March 1566 and work began soon afterwards. The Venetian Senate encouraged the project by authorising the monastery to fell one thousand oaks from one of its estates near Treviso to provide foundations for the new building. The foundation stone was laid in 1566 in the presence of the doge, the patriarch and the abbot Andrea Pampuro, then acting head of the Cassinese congregation. One year later the piers were being constructed, and contracts were issued for the walls, chapels and vaulting in 1568. The cupola was underway when the French king Henry III inspected San Giorgio during his visit in 1574, and the body of the church was finished the following year. The choir was began the year of Palladio’s death (1580) and finished in 1589. Decoration of the interior continued through the 1590s with paintings by the Tintoretto and Bassano workshops as well as sculptures by Girolamo Campagna and Niccolo Roccatagliata.

San Giorgio Maggiore offered Palladio the opportunity to establish himself as the major architect in Venice. The Carita, San Francesco della Vigna and Santa Lucia were markers along the way, but the Benedictine project gave him the scale and means to realise his ideas.

San Giorgio sometimes suffers by comparison with the Redentore, as if churches, especially church façades, were abstract exercises in problem solving. Such an approach ignores the differences in function and scale between Palladio’s churches.

San Giorgio Maggiore
Il Redentore on the island of La Giudecca

A large Benedictine monastery had specific needs that made for a complex brief, and Palladio’s solution was as masterful as it was unexpected. The beauty of the design lies in his ability to reconcile potentially conflicting elements while endowing them with a style at once saturated in a classical vocabulary and yet not completely unconnected with Venetian traditions. The main body of the church is conceived as a classical basilica, inspired by Palladio’s reconstruction of the Basilica of Maxentius, which he ranked among the most beautiful in Rome.

Plan of San Giorgio Maggiore
Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore

As an experience, the interior of San Giorgio Maggiore overwhelms any visitor through its scale and the grandeur of its architect’s imagination. A giant Composite order frames the nave while supporting a barrel vault above, and a smaller Corinthian order articulates the aisles, which have cross-vaulting. The side chapels are uniformly designed and elevated three steps above the floor; their tabernacles have a Corinthian order, and the principal altars in the transept are further distinguished by column shafts of coloured marble.

Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore
Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore
Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore
Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore
Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore
Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore
Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore

In his orchestration of the different scales and spaces, Palladio applied the lessons learned from his study of the baths: each component is distinguished from the others, and all interlock in a tradition that looks back through Codussi to Bruneleschi.

In the choir, the scale and style change, this time to a more intimate effect with alternating niches and aedicules above the richly carved walnut stalls. Though built after his death, the choir must reflect Palladio’s original intention as well as the reformist tendencies of the Cassinese congregation, which advocated retro-choirs so that the celebration of mass could be seen by all present rather than exclusively by the monks.

Choir of San Giorgio Maggiore

More controversy has surrounded the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore that any other aspect of Palladio’s religious architecture. There has been a persistent tendency to see the extant façade as a departure from the architect’s intentions even though an early elevation shows a clear connection with his experience at San Francesco della Vigna as well as with the finished project. Taking into account the small campo in front of the church and the body of the church, the façade combines the illusion of a portico, when seen from across the water, together with a dynamic overlapping of engaged columns and pilasters, when seen from nearby.

San Giorgio Maggiore
Façade of San Giorgio Maggiore

View from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore across San Marco Basin.

View from bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore towards Piazza San Marco
View from bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore towards Dorsoduro island

The church of the Redentore was the product of a very different type of commission, one that involved the highest councils of the Venetian Republic, and it owed its existence to one of the most devastating bouts of plague suffered by Venice since the Black Death of the Middle Ages. The first outbreaks occurred in the later part of 1575 and flared until July 1577, by which time more than fifty thousand people had perished. The losses amounted to a quarter of the city’s population, and as the poor were disproportionately affected by the epidemic, the social and economic fabric of the city underwent acute strain.

Whenever there was an outbreak of plague, there was a revival of devotion of saints like Roch and Sebastian as well as the veneration of Christ the Redeemer, to whom the votive church of 1576 was dedicated. An annual pilgrimage by the doge and government on the feast of the Redeemer was decreed and ten thousand ducats were initially set aside for the church. Two noblemen were entrusted with the task of selecting a site, and one owned by the Capuchin friars on the Venetian island of Giudecca was chosen, probably because it was unbuilt and presented no prospect of interference by the local clergy. As soon as the site was chosen, Palladio received the task of preparing models for the new church.

Il Redentore on the island of La Giudecca

Although the Redentore is neither so large nor so opulently appointed as San Giorgio Maggiore, it pays handsome tribute to the investment by the Venetian government, which finally amounted to some sixty thousand ducats. It also reflects the triumphalist mood of church and state in the first years of the Catholic Reformation. The Capuchins protested against the church’s splendour but their complaints were ignored. Like San Giorgio, the Redentore demonstrates Palladio’s ability to tailor his style to the site of the building, as well as to its functions, which in this case were ceremonial, votive and monastic.

The Redentore’s ceremonial quality is the first called to mind as one approaches the church today, and it is easy to conjure up the procession of dignitaries who visited there on feast day. Every year in late July a pontoon bridge is floated from the Zattere to the Redentore allowing thousands of visitors easy access to the church to enjoy the celebrations (Festa del Redentore) which culminate in a magnificent fireworks display.

The façade was conceived for the view across the Giudecca Canal and is built up from a variety of elements, from the Corinthian pilasters and segments of pediments to the frontispiece proper, which modulates from colossal Composite pilasters to engaged columns. The colossal order supports a pediment set into the attic but conveys the illusion of a portico in antis, much as was the case at San Francesco della Vigna and San Giorgio Maggiore.

Facade of Il Redentore

On the interior, one finds the same clear and rational arrangement of elements as in San Giorgio Maggiore, here allied to a plan of equal ingenuity. The Capuchins were a preaching order, an offshoot of the Franciscans, and their basic need was for a large, uninterrupted nave for sermons. Lateral chapels were required for private devotions and smaller masses. As at San Giorgio Maggiore, the chapels are raised three steps above the floor of the nave. This motif derives from the Roman baths but was filtered through Palladio’s study of Rafael’s St Peter’s and works inspired by it.

Interior of the Redentore
Interior of the Redentore
Interior of the Redentore

Like San Giorgio Maggiore, the Redentore reveals Palladio’s intensive study of the baths, but the church is much more than a compendium of motifs or influences. It is a harmonious blending of many elements into an organic whole, something that makes the experience of a Palladian church as complex and satisfying as a church by Borromini.

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

Venice and the Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Giovanni Decollato

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

Ca’ Farsetti

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

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

Ducal Palace
Ca’ d’Oro

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

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

University of Padua

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

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

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

Ducal Palace Great Council Chamber

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

Portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror by Gentile Bellini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biblioteca Marciana
Biblioteca Marciana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bridge of Sighs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rialto Bridge
Rialto Markets

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

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

Murano glass chandelier

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

Gutenberg Press

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

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

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

Aldus Manutius. Institutiones grammaticae (1523)

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

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

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

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

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

Venice Grand Canal

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

Venice at night

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

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

Baroque Splendour of Venice

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

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

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

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

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

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

Interpreti Veneziani in the Chiesa San Vidal

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

Musica a Palazzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Residenz, Würzburg
Fresco detail, Residenz, Würzburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelangelo’s David at Galleria Dell’Accademia, Florence

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

The copy of David in Piazza della Signoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum of musical instruments
Museum of musical instruments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antonio Stradivari, 1716, the ‘Medici, Tuscan’

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

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

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

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

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

Michele Antonio Grandi, Marble Dulcimer, after 1691

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

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

Spinettone by Bartolomeo Cristofori

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

Oval Spinet by Bartolomeo Cristofori

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

Domenico del Mela, Upright Piano, 1739

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

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

A Florentine Feast

As we have gone down memory lane to revisit our beary adventures in Florence, we noticed that the detailed recollection of the artistic adventures was a bit hazy. We must have been suffering from a version of Stendhal Syndrome 🙂

Meanwhile, the recollection of the shopping adventures is as vivid as if they happened yesterday 🙂

Like the visit to Amando Poggi where we discovered a delightful amethyst and pearl necklace from the Zoccai dome collection. We had to have!

Zoccai necklace
Amando Poggi, Via Calzaiuoli 103R, Florence

We also had to have a pair of pearl earrings for the necklace acquired in Seville. We found them at U. Gherardi on Ponte Vecchio.

Ruby, pearl and diamond necklace from Joyeria Tous, Seville
Earrings from U. Gherardi
Gioielleria Gherardi, Ponte Vecchio 36/R

I still remember the conversation with Ugo Gherardi who told me he usually made the earrings with white gold. I agreed that white gold was suited better to the pearls and I usually preferred white gold but this time the idea was to match the earrings to the necklace which had yellow gold, as he could see for himself. I got the earrings made with yellow gold 🙂

Ugo Gherardi in his jewellery store, remembering the 1966 flood

Ugo Gherardi, 14 at the time, recalls the flood of 1966 in an interview with The Florentine.

Exterior of Gherardi jeweller’s store after the 1966 Florence flood

I had just bought an Alviero Martini handbag in Rome, and Miss Honey wanted one too! So off we went to Alviero Martini in Piazza del Duomo where we found the perfect little handbag 🙂

Miss Honey – sized 🙂 handbag from Alviero Martini
Alviero Martini, Piazza del Duomo, 14/A-B, Florence
Alviero Martini

I still remember being amazed by the leather goods at the Scuola del Cuoio at Santa Croce. Shopping there again is at the top of the list for when we go back to Florence. I’m sure one of those jewel-bags will have my initials on it! And with any luck some cherries too… Hmm… Next flight to Florence leaves in… 🙂

Leather wallet and leather bracelet from Santa Croce School of Leather

Little Puffles and Honey found two hats with their names on them in Florence. Funny that! 🙂

It was the period before they had acquired the dazzling wardrobe they now own!

We found alabaster cherries at Solo A Firenze. Quite possibly we might have bought the lot of them!

Solo A Firenze
Borgo Santissimi Apostoli 37/r, Florence
Solo A Firenze
Cherry bounty in Florence
Alabaster cherries from Solo A Firenze

We are grateful that the Chapel of the Princes didn’t assimilate all the pietre dure in Italy and there were enough left over for our two mosaics.

Final Cherry Design and completed mosaic – special order from Pitti Mosaici
Pitti Mosaici Showroom
Sdrucciolo de’ Pitti, 5R, Florence

Also on the list for our next visit is Caffé Gilli, the oldest café in Florence. Established over 270 years ago by a Swiss family in Medici-era Florence, it started as a pastry shop steps away from the Duomo.

Yummy sweets from Caffé Gilli, Via Roma 1/R

Today’s feast is not from Caffé Gilli, but from a Swiss patisserie in Perth, Chez Jean-Claude.

And no one will tell little bears how to enjoy their feast! One of the funniest moments in Florence was lunch at Trattoria Antica Fattore. The waiter recommended lasagne and it was delicious. But he was totally indignant at my request for a glass of sweet wine. He asked with total incredulity: “With lasagne?” After which he gave me a most categorical “NO!” I had to wait for the sweet wine until I got tiramisu. And it wasn’t sweet wine at all, it was a glass of sherry. No wonder he was indignant 🙂

Trattoria Antica Fattore, Via Lambertesca 1/3R

Happy bears plotting their next shopping adventures 🙂

And the next cherry acquisitions!