by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Glorification of Venice through Art, Ancient and Modern

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 October 1997
Palazzo Ducale, Venice
Venice Enthroned with Justice and Peace, in the Sala del Collegio,
Doge's Palace, by Veronese, late 1570s to early 1580s



More than a thousand years of Venetian Republican independence ended not in heroic defiance but low farce when, on May 12, 1797, the Serenissima's government, overcome by a collective fit of funk in the face of Napoleon's invasion, voted itself out of existence by 512 votes to 30 with 5 abstentions.

As the last doge, Lodovico Manin, disrobed, he handed his servant Bernardo the linen cap worn beneath the ducal bonnet, saying: 'Take it - I shall not be needing it any more.' Bernardo took his master at his word and pocketed it as a souvenir.

The 200th anniversary of the demise of the Republic has inspired three exhibitions this autumn, the surprise star of which is 'The Serenissima's Public Statuary Museum: 1596-1797' at the Marciana Library in the Piazzetta opposite the Doge's Palace.

Classical statuary is not the art form that instantly springs to mind at the mention of Venice, but the city has a superlative public collection, normally housed in the Archaeological Museum, which attracts few visitors. The enterprise of the present show is to re-create, using contemporary engravings and records, the original arrangement of the Statuary Museum as it was for 200 years in the vestibule of Sansovino's Library building (inaugurated in 1560). The reconstruction, containing many fine pieces, is an impressive sight, and numerous smaller items, including some wonderful bronzes and cameos (among the latter a quite extraordinary second-century B.C. head of Zeus from Ephesus, the 'Giove Egioco'), are on display in the ornate main hall of the library beyond the vestibule.

The city's museum of Greek and Roman antiquities, founded in the 1520s as one of the first public institutions of its kind, was made possible by a series of major donations that continued right up to the final days of the Republic. The initial gift was from Domenico Grimani, patriarch of Aquilea, who died in 1523, the same year as Antonio, his father. Antonio had been condemned to death and brought back to Venice in chains in 1499 for incompetence and cowardice, having lost a vital sea battle to the Turks, but was a sufficiently wily politician to get himself not only rehabilitated but eventually elected doge.

Domenico's bequest to the state of first-class sculptures and manuscripts was probably in part a gesture calculated to improve the family's still-tarnished reputation, but Domenico set a trend that soon made Venice's collection one of the most significant anywhere, and provided Titian, Tintoretto and many other Venetian artists with an invaluable source of classical reference and example, which they could study without even leaving the lagoon.

At first, the museum was in the Doge's Palace, but after a subsequent large bequest by Giovanni Grimani (Antonio's grandson), a new home was sought and the transfer of the museum to the library was completed in 1596. Although not originally designed as a museum, Sansovino's vestibule proved an ideally bright, airy and architecturally noble backdrop for the ancient sculptures, as can now be seen once again, even if the display of so many pieces in close proximity goes refreshingly against modern museum practices. (The special exhibition in the library hall continues until Nov. 2, but the statuary will remain in place until at least March 1998.) Miraculously the Public Statuary Museum escaped the pillage of the Napoleonic occupation under the protection of the remarkable Iacopo Morelli, who served as chief librarian and curator from 1778 until 1819, and in the course of repeated invasions and upheavals not only kept the collection intact, but even managed to add to its holdings.

The Great Council Hall in the Doge's Palace, where for centuries Venice's republican oligarchy deliberated and where they finally in panic decreed their own abolition, provides the appropriate setting for the opening part of 'From Doges to Emperors' (until Dec.8). This exhibition, which has further sections in the neighboring hall and the Empire-style Napoleonic wing of the Correr Museum across Piazza San Marco, illustrates through paintings, engravings, popular satirical cartoons and other documents the history of Venice from the fall of the Republic, through alternating French and Austrian domination to the decades of Habsburg rule which led up to Venice's unification with the new Kingdom of Italy in 1866. There are some pertinent and evocative exhibits here, but the show will be more rewarding to those with some knowledge of the political ins and outs of the period than to someone coming entirely fresh to it.

The late Professor S.E. Finer, in his monumental 'History of Government from the Earliest Times,' unequivocally declared the system of Renaissance Venice 'the best in the world,' and indeed for stability, internal peace and social harmony the Venetian Republic in its heyday was without equal, and still being looked to as a model by the Founding Fathers of America. The Serenissima was highly conscious of this image and did everything it could to broadcast it, giving rise to the so-called 'myth' of Venice's political perfection - a myth, however, containing an unusually high content of reality.

'Venice: From State to Myth' at the Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore (until Nov. 30) invokes the myth of Venice in its title, but makes little effort to delve into what lay behind it. The first section, which contains some powerful images by Venice's leading Renaissance artists, including Carpaccio's majestic 'Lion of St. Mark' and works by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, most closely addresses the exhibition's putative theme and highlights how effective Venetian artists were in giving visual expression to the political assumptions of the myth. This remained true even when Venice lost its superpower status in the era of Canaletto and Guardi, also represented here.

The myth of Venice expired with the Republic, and the many Italian and foreign artists who later came to the city were drawn entirely by its beauty and exoticism rather than its prestige, wealth and symbolic significance. But the exhibition seems to imply that this gave rise to a new myth, which causes confusion given that 'the myth of Venice' is a term with specific historical connotations. The show embraces the works of some 150 artists from the 15th to the 20th centuries and, although it includes canvases and sketches by major later figures, such as Turner, Monet and Sargent, these are not necessarily their best Venetian productions. It remains, however, an interesting compendium of paintings of Venice - and a reminder of how difficult it is to compete on canvas with a city that is already a stupendous artwork in itself.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023