Wednesday, 19 January 2011

New books: Venice and the staging of its glory

After two critically acclaimed books on Rome, the Danish art historian Mogens Nykjær has moved his focus further north, more precisely to Venice. The result is Venezia – Byhistorie og kunst, a gem among the many books on this most enchanting of cities.
In this lavishly illustrated, information-packed volume Nykjær investigates the relation between history and art in Venice, focusing on the years between the thirteenth century and the Napoleonic age immediately after the fall of the Republic.
Many of Venice’s many famous churches, palatial mansions and artworks go by in this book, but also simpler dwelling houses, communal wells and the many campos around which entire societies in miniature could revolve (Nykjær relates the story of an author who went to see an 100-year-old lady living near the Church of San Pietro di Castello in order to ask her about life in St Mark’s Square in her youth, only to be told that the centenarian had never once been to the Square).
But naturally the major sites, such as the Basilica of St Mark, the Ducal Palace and St Mark’s Square, are given the most thorough treatment and a chapter on ducal funerary monuments are among what stands out in this book.
Venice, Nykjær points out, is virtually alone among major Italian cities in not having a Roman past. This makes it a polycentric city, not a planned, monocentric city like those of Roman origins. But most importantly it meant that when Venice became a great power in the thirteenth century, one saw the need for inventing a past which could bear comparison to those cities with such a past.
And this – the staging of Venice, its self-celebration through art – is the main theme of Mogens Nykjær’s book. Venice cast itself in the role as the new Rome and the new Byzantium, a chosen city with a privileged position, closer to Christ and the Virgin Mary than any other city.
Nykjær highlights how the Doge’s throne in the Sala Del Maggior Consiglio in the Ducal Palace is situated immediately beneath Christ in Tintoretto’s glorious fresco “Paradise”, alluding to the Doge as the earthly mirror image of Christ. The same relation between Christ and the Doge can be found in Pietro Lombardo’s funerary monument to Doge Pietro Mocenigo in the Basilica of San Zanipolo.
In another of the Ducal Palace’s halls, those saved in Palma il Giovane’s “Doomsday” rush to that corner of the picture which is to be found above the door leading to the short corridor linking this hall to the Sala Del Maggior Consiglio. This is as Nykjær sees it the very culmination of how Venice presents itself through its art as a privileged, chosen city. Those redeemed on doomsday are shown rushing towards the door to Paradise – to Venice.
The self-staging of Venice reached its climax in the sixteenth century, when the might of the Republic was in fact in decline – partly as a result of Vasco da Gama’s finding an alternative route to India in 1498 and thus depriving Venice of its monopoly in trading with spices. But, as Nykjær points out, this was only a logical result of the usual practice whereby the urge for stressing the magnitude of one’s power increases when actual power decreases.
Thus, the sixteenth century was nevertheless the “imperial age” of Venice, when she rested contentedly in the position she had acquired while watching it slowly crumble. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the sack of Rome in 1527 provided Venice with an even greater opportunity to present itself as the new Constantinople and the new Rome – the imperial survivor.
Yet even the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice eventually came to an end. In the eighteenth century the authorities could no longer afford embellishing the city in the way it had hitherto done and the initiative shifted to private actors who also no longer refrained from glorifying themselves or their families rather than Venice – as can be seen in for instance Villa Pisani in Stra.
Mogens Nykjær’s interpretation of Venice and how it staged its own power and position through the arts is an excellent book which will hopefully be translated into other languages and take its natural place among the classics on this fascinating city.

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