Over the course of several centuries, Venice fashioned and refined a portrait of itself that responded to and exploited historical circumstance. Never conquered and taking its enduring independence as a sign of divine favor, free of civil strife and proud of its internal stability, Venice broadcast the image of itself as the Most Serene Republic, an ideal state whose ruling patriciate were selflessly devoted to the commonweal. All this has come to be known as the "myth of Venice." Exploring the imagery developed in Venice to represent the legends of its origins and legitimacy, David Rosand reveals how artists such as Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, Titian, Jacopo Sansovino, Tintoretto, and Veronese gave enduring visual form to the myths of Venice. He argues that Venice, more than any other political entity of the early modern period, shaped the visual imagination of political thought. This visualization of political ideals, and its reciprocal effect on the civic imagination, is the larger theme of the book.
About the Author
David Rosand, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University, is well known for his studies of Venetian art. His books in that field include Titian; Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto; and The Meaning of the Mark: Leonardo and Titian.
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For this book on the myths of Venice, I might well have borrowed the title that Jacob Burckhardt gave to the first part of his classic Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: "The State as a Work of Art." For, in a quite literal sense, that is my subject: that is, the imagery developed by la Serenissima Repubblica, the Most Serene Republic of Venice, to represent itself. I am concerned with what has become fashionably known as Renaissance self-fashioning, but here on a monumental scale.
More than any other political entity of the early modern period, the Republic of Venice shaped the visual imagination of political thought; just as she instructed Europeand, ultimately, the independent colonies of Americain the idea of statehood, so she taught how to give that idea eloquent pictorial form, especially through the figuration of the state. It is that imaging, the visualization of political ideal and the reciprocal effect of such imagery on that ideal, that is my theme. I am concerned not only with the official iconography of state per se, but with the ways in which such imagery resonates within a culture, the ways in which visual motifs acquire an aura of association and allusion dependent upon a network of shared values and habits of interpretationwhat Aby Warburg called "the maintenance of the 'social mneme.'"
Over the course of several centuries, Venice had refined a portrait of itself that responded to and exploited historical circumstance and vicissitudeincluding its despoliation of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, its final victory over its maritime rival Genoa in 1380, and, in the early sixteenth century, its survival of the war with the League of Cambrai, an alliance of the major powers of Europe and Italy determined to humble the expanding Republic, and its determined resistance to papal interdict, especially in 1508 and again in 1606. The character of this self-portrait, calm and confident, derived from the celebrated internal political stability of the Venetian republic, founded upon its well-ordered constitution and rule of law. That collective imageof the self-proclaimed Most Serene Republic as an ideal political entity whose ruling patriciate were selflessly devoted to the commonwealhas come to be known as the "myth of Venice."
The relevant dictionary definition of myth here is "the fictions or half-truths forming part of the ideology of a society." The myth of Venice represents a composite of a number of related such "fictions or half-truths" that the Republic invented of and for itselfits origins and legitimacy, its divine favor and holy purposeand those myths came to be figured in a corresponding number of icons. The first of these was the image of the city itself, miraculously rising out of the waters of the lagoon. The others were figures symbolic of the Republic: its patron saint, the evangelist Mark, and the winged lion that stood for him, and then the regal personification of Venetia herself, Queen of the Adriatic.
The personified Venetia in particular came to epitomize in a single figure the virtues of the Republic, embodying the special qualities claimed for the state itself. An anatomy of this concentrated manifestation of the iconography of the myth of Venice reveals some of its many dimensions, the complexity of its genesis, and the referential range inherent in the forms of her self-presentation. Yielding a clearer understanding of the myth, such an exploration will also elucidate the nature and operations of such imagery. In isolating the individual elements that collectively constitute this image of Venice, we will want to consider the degree to which they continue to resonate separately, necessarily recalling their origins even as they participate in the formulation of a new visual and ideological construct. We will want to test the subsequent reception of such figuration and consider to what extent such later response and commentary offer a legitimate reflection of original or intended meaning. And this takes us to the heart of the matter: the ways in which an image signifies, the dimensions and reach of its meaning.
Several individual elements contribute to the Renaissance compound of Venetia figurata. Each of them draws upon an independent tradition of its own; each contributes a particular aspect to the new construct, a set of values as well as of visual possibilities. The main constituents of the figure of Venice that will interest us include a rather interesting range of models: from the figure of the Virgin Mary and the personification of the cardinal virtue of Justice to the pagan figures of the goddess Roma and of Venus, the goddess of love.® The very possibility of figuring Venice depended upon the special nature of that polity. Personification was possible only on the basis of an essential precondition: the abstract concept of the state.
Out of the facts and fictions of its history, the Republic of Venice wove the fabric of propaganda that represents the essence of the myth of itself: an ideally formed state, miraculously uniting in its exemplary structure the best of all governmental typesthat is, monarchy, oligarchy, and democracyand, most significantly, institutionalizing this harmonic structure in a constitution that was to inspire other nations for centuries. True, political activity was restricted to a small ruling class definitively circumscribed by the end of the thirteenth century, a patriciate comprising those families whose previous governmental participation and service to the state had qualified them for such "nobility." These familiesthat is, their males over the age of twenty-fiveconstituted the Maggior Consiglio, the great council that represented the democratic base of the government. From the great council were elected the members of the senate, the oligarchic component. At the top of this pyramidal organization was the doge, the monarchic element. Elected for life (and usually late in life) through a balloting process of truly Byzantine complexity, the doge was the symbolic embodiment of the Venetian state; his power, however, was severely restricted as Venice zealously guarded its republican virtue against potential tyranny or dynastic aspiration.
With its governmental structure and operations fixed in its celebrated constitution, Venice came to stand for the very idea of the state, an ideal abstraction reified and functioning on earth. It was the rule of law that maintained the serenity of this polity. The very survival of the Republic for well over a millenium seemed proof of its privileged status among nations. A sovereign state, unconquereduntil 1797, when it finally surrendered its independence to NapoleonVenice celebrated its own immutability, remaining secure in its lagoon fortress and in the righteousness of its institutions, the guaranteed and absolute rule of law that made it the paragon of justice in the eyes of the world.
Table of Contents
|2.||The Peace of Saint Mark||47|
|3.||The Wisdom of Solomon||96|
|4.||The Appropriation of Olympus||117|
|Bibliography of Works Cited||167|
What People are Saying About This
Prodigiously learned in iconography, David Rosand has provided an impressive account, with copious illustrations, of the 'visualization of political ideal' in late medieval and early modern Venice. . . . Rosand's exposition of the decorative schemes and their allusions is thorough and convincing, and will appeal to all but the most iconoclastic historians of Venice.Times Literary Supplement
David Rosand stands at the summit of art historical scholarship on Renaissance Venice and Myths of Venice shows his masterly hand. Based on deep learning worn lightly and gracefully, Rosand's book describes the myth of Venice's exceptional governmental sagacity, its grounding in the city's distinctive social, political, and religious values, and its expression in sublime visual imagery. Rosand here provides specialists with a synthesis of his authoritative studies of Venetian culture; at the same time his accessible eloquence will claim a wide readership among Venice's many non-specialist admirers." Stanley Chojnacki, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Venice has inspired . . . Rosand to write [a] remarkably laudatory [book] on the artistic legacy generated by the Renaissance mythmakers and propagandists of that city. . . . Rosand stresses the importance of English writers in propagating the myth of Venice as a unique state possessing an exemplary political constitution. . . . Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.Library Journal
Rosand's Myths of Venice provide[s] expert guidance through the intricacies of this more private Venetian artistic symbolism, revealing its underlying sense much as a good map will reveal the basic rationality behind the city's complex web of islands, paths, and waterways. Designed for the curious general reader, physically compact, fluidly written. . . . [An] ideal . . . traveling companion.New York Review of Books
Scholars across the disciplines, as well as the wider reading public, can be grateful to David Rosand for so elegantly laying out how the Venetian elites expressed in visual form their highest ideals and aspirations.Renaissance and Reformation
The scholarship in back of this deceptively straightforward presentation is what we have come to expect of Rosand as one of the leading scholars of Venetian Renaissance art. In evidence are his great interpretive strengths: close and illuminating readings of the image, masterful formal analyses, and the contextualization of the work of art in its immediate physical context.Patricia Fortini Brown, Professor of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University, and author of Venice & Antiquity: the Venetian Sense of the Past (Yale, 1996) and other works on Venetian art and culture.
Sophisticated, yet easily read.Choice
[An] impressively learned volume. . . . The book also provides numerous illustrations, some in color, extensive endnotes and a wide-ranging bibliography. . . . [This book] helps us better understand just why this beguiling city has, for so many centuries, fascinated the world.Washington Post Book World
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rosand's book is an elegantly written account of the imagery of Venetian state identity, primarily through its painting and sculpture, though architecture is given some attention (although not enough for my taste). His succinct exploration of Titian's Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple is excellent (though his citations suggest it is but a brief summary of his own previously-published material). The end is rushed, and his very brief mention of Tiepolo leaves much unexplored about the later figuration of La Serenissima.