by Roderick Conway Morris

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Biblioteca Querini Stampalia, Venice
The Siege of Modon by an unknown artist, 1686

Venice's Checkered Past in the Balkans and Greece: Saints, Heroes and Vandals

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 August 2001


The conquest of parts of Dalmatia represented Venice's first true overseas adventure and the springboard for the founding of the Republic's eastern maritime empire.

From the early 11th century, the doges of Venice also styled themselves the doges, or dukes, of Dalmatia, and the special relationship that grew up between Venice and this strategic stretch of the eastern Adriatic coast meant that Dalmatia shared the experience of the Venetian Renaissance more closely and fully than any other part of the empire.

The rich legacy of art and architecture left behind by these centuries was threatened and in places badly damaged during the wars of the 1990s. Venetian Heritage, a new American Foundation based in Venice and New York, has taken a particular interest in the art of this area, which is part of present-day Croatia, and two years ago began a series of rescue and restoration programs along the Dalmatian coast, designed not only to deal with immediate problems, but to give foreign restorers the opportunity to offer expertise and train local craftsmen.

Some of the finest fruits of this enterprise are now on show in 'Treasures of Croatia' at the San Barnaba Church, in a dazzling display of nearly 100 pieces - ranging from sculpture and paintings to metalwork and manuscripts. (The exhibition continues until Nov. 4.) One of the more ambitious single projects undertaken by Venetian Heritage and their co-sponsors has been the restoration of the sculptures of the Blessed Giovanni Orsini chapel of the cathedral of Trogir (Trau). The original plan for the chapel was, in the words of the scholar Anne Markham Schulz, 'one of the most elaborate schemes of architectural and sculptural interior decoration of the 15th century.'

The artists chosen to execute it were Niccolo di Giovanni Fiorentino, who as his name bears witness had Florentine origins; Andrea Alessi, who was born in Albania; and the native of Trogir, Ivan Duknovic, known as Giovanni Dalmata ('the Dalmatian'). Niccolo di Giovanni had, like Giotto and Donatello before him, migrated from Tuscany to Padua, and indeed he probably spent time in Donatello's workshop there before going on to Venice, where some major works are attributed to him. His most dramatic piece displayed here is a bas-relief 'Lamentation Over the Dead Christ,' in which the unrestrained and inconsolable grief of the family and companions of the lifeless savior chillingly bring to mind thousands of similar scenes from the recent and current Balkan wars.

Giovanni Dalmata, who enjoyed a brilliant career in Rome, and so impressed the connoisseur and collector Matthias Corvinus during his decade at court in Hungary that the king ennobled him, is represented here by some hardly less striking pieces, including a wonderfully sprightly torchbearing, winged cupid.

Works of leading Venetian artists found their way to Dalmatia, even if their authors did not travel there. Interesting examples here include ones by Jacopo Bellini's studio, Tintoretto and Palma the Younger. Especially suggestive is a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto of the Dalmatian Bishop Toma Niger, painted in Venice in 1527.

Latin and Italian (or at least Venetian) were imposed as official languages in Dalmatia. But despite this, or perhaps partly because of it, vernacular Slavic literature enjoyed its own Renaissance during this period.

Venice's hold on Dalmatia was never absolute. The Republic frequently had to go to war to assert its authority there, regain lost territory and meet the challenges posed by the Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Although the masters of a city that was becoming the most gorgeous concentration of architecture and art in the world, the Venetians showed scant regard for the hallowed monuments of other peoples, ancient or modern. When Trogir, for example, was definitively annexed in 1420, the bombardment inflicted massive damage on the cathedral, bell tower and rector's palace. And 150 years later, giant stone cannon balls could still be seen embedded in the walls of houses.

The Serenissma's last fling of expansionism was in the late 17th century and was the occasion for one of the most disgraceful cases of nonsensical vandalism in history - the destruction of a large part of the Parthenon at Athens.

However, as an absorbing exhibition at the newly refurbished Querini Stampalia Foundation's museum, 'The Conquest of the Morea (1684-1699): Images of the Myth,' reveals in the course of a display of manuscripts, books, maps, paintings and engravings, the outcome in Athens could have been even worse (this show continues until Aug. 26).

The last Ottoman siege of Vienna had been raised in 1683, and as their contribution to a Holy League formed to try to roll back centuries of Turkish advances, the Venetian fleet and army, commanded by Francesco Morosini, successfully overran the entire Peloponnese, or the Morea as it was familiarly known from medieval times.

War fever gripped Venice and the universal thirst for news was responsible for a fledgling popular press in the form of daily pamphlets relaying official dispatches, eye-witness accounts from the front, rabble-rousing eulogies and gung-ho poetic celebrations of victories.

In September 1687, Morosini attacked Athens, then an insignificant backwater of no strategic importance. On Sept. 26 or 27, while his gunners were bombarding the Acropolis, a round crashed through the roof of the Parthenon, setting off the Turkish powder magazine inside, with the devastating consequences that can be seen until this day.

Less well-known is the fact that, as Anastasia Stouraiti, co-curator of the show with Laura Marasso, points up in her commentary on the intriguing selection of manuscripts she has edited relating to the war, Morosini did further grave damage by hastily trying to remove sculptures from the pediment of the temple. During that operation they plummeted to the ground and were smashed to pieces. (In the end, Morosini had to content himself with carrying off two marble lions, which now stand outside the land-gate of Venice's Arsenal.)

More astounding still was Morosini's plan, upon again abandoning the citadel to the Turks a few months later, to blow up all the remaining buildings on the Acropolis, to deny the enemy a future redoubt. Mercifully, he lacked the time and the manpower to carry out this scheme.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024