by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museo Correr, Venice
Monumental Staircase of the Correr Museum in Venice, 2020

A Grander Correr

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 May 1993


The Correr Museum is not only one of Italy's finest art and historical collections, but enjoys one its most splendid settings - the upper floors of two sides of St Mark's Square. So splendid, in fact, that local politicians, among them the city's mayor and the former foreign minister Gianni de Michelis (who is currently implicated in the country's corruption scandal), have been pressing to evict the museum to turn the rooms into government offices.

Despite the threat hanging over the Correr, Professor Giandomenico Romanelli, the director of Venice's civic museums, has just completed a major renovation of the museum, extensively restoring its magnificent apartments, substantially re-arranging the original collection and creating an entirely new section with 250 additional exhibits.

Romanelli greeted me at the head of the impressive monumental staircase that leads up to the museum. Previously the entry to the collection was via a side corridor, but now the visitor is confronted with double doors thrown open to reveal a stunning, meticulously restored, Empire ballroom, permanently open to the public for the first time. Its construction was decreed by Napoleon after his conquest of the city in 1797, as part of his radical alteration of this end of the Piazza to form part of his projected palace.

It was, indeed, Napoleon's invasion of the Republic gave birth to the Correr legacy. Teodoro Correr was a Venetian aristocrat born in 1750. 'He was already a collector before the fall of the Republic,' said Romanelli. 'But he wasn't particularly rich. However, when the end came and all the rest of the aristocracy was desperately trying to sell, Correr went against the tide and started buying. He bought thousands of things, often at incredibly low prices. And, though he wasn't always very discriminating, he did manage to buy things of enormous interest and artistic value.'

When Correr died in 1830, he left all his property to the city. The collection has been built upon since with donations and acquisitions, but the core of it remains Correr's original bequest. The first floor of the museum is devoted to items of historical interest and illustrative pictures, whilst the second is a gallery of painting and sculpture from the 13th to the 17th centuries, which include important works by Carpaccio, all three Bellinis, Tura, Antonello, and Flemish pictures (which had a significant impact on Venetian art).

Correr had an unusually acute sense that with the overthrow of the over one-thousand-year-old Republic its material culture was about to be irretrievably dispersed and lost. He rescued many artefacts associated with the Doge, from examples of his distinctive horned berretta, to a stylish broad straw hat made for him by the nuns of San Zaccaria, and his mourning robe - not black, but bright scarlet to recall the blood of Christ. In another room is a beautifully and intricately crafted model of the Bucintoro, the Doge's sumptuous state barge, and the few gilded panels, statuettes and decorative reliefs to survive when it was burnt by the French to melt down the gold with which it was encrusted. Further on considerable space given to the career of Admiral Francesco Morosini, who led a dramatic revival of Venice's fortunes in the late 17th century. Among his relics is his personal security device - a prayer book with the back pages cut out to conceal a miniature pistol.

The newly inaugurated suite of rooms displays a fascinating array of Venetian applied arts, from elegant glassware used by pharmacists, to an elaborate wig-dressing set, decorated with pictures by Giandomenico Tiepolo (found by Romanelli in a Rome antiques market) to an early roulette wheel. The artefacts are cleverly brought alive by colorful contemporary paintings commissioned by the various trade guilds showing their members at work. The strangest products of all are the towering clogs worn by Renaissance Venetian women. Some were so tall that the wearer had to be supported on either side in order to walk. A positively fetishistic pair that, Romanelli said, almost certainly belonged to a courtesan, are over one and a half feet high.

It was partly the presence of platform clogs (though only a modest six inches or so high) that led to the dubbing of the Correr's most famous Carpaccio as 'The Two Cortesans'. The picture - in reality of two eminently respectable, fashionably- dressed noblewomen - forms part of a special explanatory exhibition (upstairs, until 25 May) of over twenty paintings about to be returned to the main gallery after cleaning and conservation work.

The most exciting single revelation of this restoration program is that a Carpaccio bird-hunting scene on the lagoon, now in the Getty Museum in Malibu, is indeed (as has been suggested) the top half of this Correr Carpaccio. The removal of grime and of later retouching has now shown beyond doubt that the stem of the myrtle flower emerging from the pot on the balustrade by the young woman matches perfectly with its continuation into the Malibu picture, and that the curvature of the warped wood on which the pictures are painted is also identical. So the top section might now be viewed, from the Correr point of view, as 'the one that got away' - since by the time the museum's founder bought the Carpaccio the hunting scene had been sawn off and carried away to Rome by Napoleon's uncle.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023