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Miraculous Mosaics

The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice Vol. I, The Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries Vol. II, The Thirteenth Century plates (plates in two volumes)

by Otto Demus, with contributions from Rudolf M. Kloos, by Kurt Weitzmann
University of Chicago Press, 852 (text in two volumes), 160 color plates, 731 black and white pp., $350.00

San Marco in Venice, the palatine chapel of the doge and the state church of the Serenissima, has always been admired as one of the great exotic buildings in the history of European architecture. At the same moment when elsewhere in Europe—at Cluny, along the pilgrimage roads to Santiago, in Norman England, or in the Empire—the first monumental Roman-esque buildings began to rise, Venice built the most ambitious Byzantine church ever erected in the Latin West. There was an only too evident ideological reason for this choice: the Venetians wished the shrine of Saint Mark, their state saint and venerated Apostle, to be a copy of the Church of the Holy Apostles, which had been constructed five centuries earlier by Justinian in the capital of the Eastern empire. The relics of Saint Mark are said to have reached Venice in 829. The present church with its cross plan and its five domes dates from the late eleventh century.

Until the end of the republic in 1797 San Marco was the spiritual and political sanctuary of the Venetian state. It was the center of the domineering ecclesiastical festivities of the Serenissima, the place where the doge was officially presented to the people of Venice after his election and invested with the “Vexillum Sancti Marci.” So it is no wonder that San Marco has not only been enlarged, enriched, and decorated but also restored again and again. Large parts of the booty, the sacred trophies, that reached Venice after the capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1240 were stored in and around the shrine of the state saint. (The famous horses of San Marco are certainly the most stupendous of these spoils.)

The exterior of San Marco has always baffled visitors to Venice by the lavishness and the splendor of its accumulated decorations. The interior shows one of the largest and most intriguing series of mosaics from the Middle Ages that have been conserved either in the East or in the West. These mosaics are displayed in the apses and on the five domes, on the walls and the pillars; they continue in the atrium and they originally covered even the upper parts of the façade. Destruction, renovations, and restorations have obliterated, changed, and distorted large parts of the original decoration. Even so, there remain more than six hundred square meters of mosaics from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries that are more or less well preserved. It is understandable that no exhaustive study of this over-powering mass of material—and the problems it presents—was ever undertaken. To fill this gap was the truly gigantic task which Otto Demus set for himself with the present monumental publication, and which he has bravely achieved.

Demus has been interested in the mosaics of San Marco ever since he presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Vienna in 1927. He wrote on the mosaics in the Byzantine churches of Greece as early as 1931 and he published a long study of the mosaics of Norman Sicily shortly after the war. His monograph of 1960 on the history, architecture, and sculpture of San Marco has become a classic. No one could have been better prepared to undertake the definitive study of the mosaics of San Marco.

Still the effort required remained colossal. Scaffoldings had to be erected beneath all the mosaics, and in eight separate projects between 1974 and 1979 all of the mosaics were carefully photographed, scrutinized piece by piece, and even cleaned—a model of patient field-work in art history. The result is presented in four weighty volumes with 891 plates—no fewer than 160 of them in color—and 535 pages of text. Virtually every detail is illustrated, every problem of conservation, iconography, and style is discussed at length. Demus never draws a hasty conclusion and more than once he leaves a question open. This, naturally, is not a book to be read but a masterful work of reference to be consulted.

Perhaps the book would have been easier to use if the enormous amount of information in it were organized in the form of a condensed catalog. Demus has chosen to write a continuous text with long-winded descriptions that sometimes make these volumes clumsy to consult. On the other hand one cannot praise the author enough for his laconic use of scholarly references. “I have refrained,” he writes, “from bibliographical orgies…. Scholars do not need those torrents of references and other readers will be confused by them.”

Demus has organized his story of the mosaics of San Marco according to changes in both style and chronology. Volume 1 deals with the eleventh and twelfth centuries and is mainly concerned with the mosaics in the interior of the church. Volume 2 continues with the thirteenth century and discusses among others the famous cycle of images from the Old Testament in the atrium. This chronological arrangement allows the reader to follow the changes, the innovations, the interruptions, and the quiet periods of a long-lasting enterprise, which endured from the second half of the eleventh century until 1270 or even later, no less than two hundred years.

Compared to the development of Western art of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, changes in the mosaics during this long span remained surprisingly undramatic. The dominant tendency of the artists who created the mosaics was a well-founded conservatism. Even the extravagances of the Byzantine “rococo” in the late twelfth century become beautifully moderated in the mosaics of the central cupola and its nearly classical figures of virtues. As has long been recognized and as is demonstrated here once more exhaustively in a weighty chapter by Kurt Weitzmann, the Genesis Mosaics in the atrium of San Marco copy or translate the illustrations of a Greek manuscript from the fifth century.

In any other Western building such a translation from a time-honored model would certainly have put the old formulas in new clothes. In the atrium of San Marco the changes are minimal. Splendor and enrichment are achieved by using the old model like a precious treasure. Demus reminds us of the ideological and political setting in which such copying of an early Byzantine manuscript in thirteenth-century Venice must be evaluated. He sees it as having parallels “to the choice of an early Byzantine model for the church of San Marco, to the use of the early Christian spoils for its decoration…to the development, with the help of genuine and forged elements, of a ‘tradition’ reaching back to the apostolic age.”

Instructive as the stylistic and chronological arrangement of the material generally is, a price sometimes had to be paid for it. The east dome for instance, with a sequence of thirteen prophets as well as the virgin—figures that seem to have been created at different moments in the twelfth century—is dealt with in two widely separated chapters in the first volume, the first phase in chapter six, soon after the archaic main apse, the second in chapter fourteen, after the much later west dome with the mosaic of the Pentecost. As much as one may appreciate the subtle distinctions between the “classicism” of the earlier figures and the “dynamic style” of the more recent ones, a treatment of the cupola as a whole would have made things easier for the reader.

The program of the vast ensemble, as it is masterfully analyzed by Demus, is not systematic in any strict sense, but shows different grand themes that are again and again juxtaposed. One frequently elaborated theme is the apostolic status of the church of Venice. Already the early mosaics in the main apse show side by side the state saints, Nicholas, Peter, Mark, and—turned toward them in veneration—Hermagoras, the first patriarch of Aquileia, the Roman-founded town north of Venice, who was regarded as a direct follower of the apostles. Demus rightly stresses that this grandiose sequence of towering figures seems less Byzantine than Romanesque. In the apse of San Marco the church of Venice announces its apostolic claims by means of a monumental composition that resembles those in many of the great churches of the Latin West. Hermagoras occurs a second time in the chapel of Saint Peter on the north side of the choir. We see a narrative cycle, which in its unadorned and restrained style is again more Romanesque than Byzantine. It shows, among many other scenes, the consecration of Hermagoras by Peter in Rome; and then we see the same Hermagoras on a mission to baptize converts in Aquileia and the Veneto. Once more the message is clear.

It is, however, not Hermagoras, the rather obscure patriarch of Aquileia, but Mark, the apostle and patron of the state church, who appears as the central figure in the Venetian scenes of the mosaic decoration. In the choir chapels his trip to Alexandria, his martyrdom, and above all the transport of his relics to Venice are faithfully represented in an illustrated chronicle. Navigation must always have been a topic close to the imagination and observation of the Venetians. The ship that crossed the Mediterranean with the precious relics is meticulously rendered. The most official scene of the whole story—the solemn reception of the relics at Venice by the bishops, the clergy, the people, and the doge—has been unhappily so much restored that it can no longer be trusted in all its details. Demus hails it with good reason as “the earliest representation of the combined powers of church and state in Venice.” Its date must be somewhere in the first half of the twelfth century.

The doge Ranieri Zen, who reigned from 1253 to 1268, introduced the feast of the apparitio, which recalled the miraculous rediscovery of the relics of San Marco in 1094. Under Ranieri Zen this fateful event was represented in a huge mosaic, which Demus describes as a medieval forerunner of the later Venetian “corporative state portrait.” In a mosaic showing the interior of San Marco, faithfully represented with its five majestic domes, we watch the bishop, the doge with the procuratori, and groups of nobles and especially noble ladies who shine in elegant dresses and are loaded with jewelry. Demus has even tried to identify some of these aristocratic bystanders—for instance the unhappy Philippe de Courtenay, the son of the emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople, who was kept as a hostage by the Venetians when the mosaic was made. Be this as it may, the apparitio remains an astonishing self-portrait of Venetian society in the thirteenth century. We can find elsewhere in Europe at the same time—at the courts of England, Castilia, or France, or even in the smaller territories of the Empire—images of princes and donors which look even more lively. Only in Venice, however, has such an image been enlarged into a ceremonial portrait of all the great figures in Church and state.

About two decades later another mosaic, above one of the west portrals, shows once more the people of Venice assembled around the relics of Saint Mark, which have been transferred into the state church. There is no excitement and nearly no movement, but the assembly shines with gold and luxurious vestments. Venice has always been the city of feasts and splendid ceremonies. These medieval mosaics prefigure some of the great moments in later Venetian paintings—one thinks of Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini and even of the dashing banquets of Paolo Veronese.

The interior of San Marco preserves a great number of mosaics with scenes from the New Testament. Widely spread throughout the different parts of the building, they were created in a series of distinct projects that began during the first half of the twelfth century and became more and more elaborate before they were finished well after 1200. Demus has closely analyzed the variations of style to be observed in these cycles. The earliest appear on the south vault with scenes such as the temptation of Christ, or the washing of the feet, and they are rather dreary and monotonous. Demus speaks of “arte povera.” Even the west cupola with the famous representation of the Pentecost brings no fundamental stylistic change. The most fascinating feature of this composition is certainly the series of thirty-two figures beneath the feet of the apostles, which represent the different nations by their somewhat fantastically conceived customs: the Egyptians are shown as moors, the Arabs half naked (see illustration opposite). The iconography seems to be thoroughly Byzantine, but Demus insists rightly: “The gusto with which this pseudorealism was developed displays the spirit of Venice.” And again one is tempted to think of all the representations of exotic and especially oriental people that will appear in later Venetian art.

Among the scenes from the New Testament a radical stylistic innovation becomes apparent only rather late in the twelfth century. It can first be noticed in the central cupola with the image of the Ascension, which may be called the most beautiful of all the mosaics in San Marco. As Demus notes, a “musical quality” pervades this composition, which “outranks all other cupola decorations of the Middle Byzantine period.” The iconography is unusually ambitious. Christ is surrounded not only by the Apostles and the Evangelists, but also by the virtues, the Beatitudes, and the rivers of Paradise. It is a program that seems more Western than Byzantine. The virtues refer evidently to the forthcoming Last Judgment which is expressively announced in the inscription of the cupola.

There exist many Western parallels to this combination of subjects. Demus ingeniously suggests that at least some of the allegories—such as Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and Prudence—may also have been connected with an ideal conception of the doge and could “be read as a speculum ducis.” The image of the Ascension forms the center of the large decoration of the state church. Demus reminds us that celebration of the Ascension was the highest Venetian state festival, the famous sensa. This coincidence is certainly not fortuitous. The message of the mosaics of San Marco is political as well as religious. The program visualizes the sacred myth of the state and Church of Venice.

The elegant, slender figures of the apostles and virtues in the Ascension cupola are a Venetian echo of a fashion in late twelfth-century Eastern art, which some specialists have hailed as “Byzantine Rococo” or described as “dynamic” and “stormy.” At San Marco such extravagance has remained always relatively moderate. The long sequence of mosaics with scenes from the New Testament ends after 1200 quite differently with the grandiose Agony in the Garden, which shows the stamp of a new monumental stylization. Demus emphasizes that for a short period before the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the art of the city saw “a return to the great classical art of the tenth and eleventh centuries,” the golden age of the Macedonian Renaissance. Such neoclassicism must have been quite welcome in the climate of renovatio which dominated Venice in the thirteenth century. The traces of this renovatio are still visible in the many spoils or retrospective sculptures around San Marco.

But more than ever Venice had now become a place between East and West. The monumental style of the latest mosaics in the interior of San Marco can be seen as a parallel to the art of the Gothic cathedrals, which prospered in Northern Europe. It is not by chance that we encounter on the Western piers in San Marco figures of saints before a patterned background that recalls Gothic stained-glass windows.

The most important mosaics still remaining from the thirteenth century are found in the atrium. Six domes have been decorated with scenes from the Old Testament, of which no fewer than three tell the story of Joseph. After the achievement of the mosaics in the interior such an expanded and loquacious decoration demanded an enormous supplementary effort. Demus is certainly right in suggesting that such monumental pomp should be seen in the light of the new position Venice held after the victory over Byzantium. The doge of Venice was “Dominator quartae et dimidiae partis totius Romaniae.” The booty that the doge Enrico Dandolo sent home from Constantinople early in the thirteenth century contained “much mosaic to adorn the church of San Marco.” The desire to compete with the earlier great mosaic decorations in Rome and Sicily may have been another stimulus for the decision to decorate the atrium of San Marco.

The plan of these cupola decorations is somewhat unimaginative and aims at plain and continuous narration. They can be read like a book of illustrations or a comic strip. Monumental effects are avoided. These images entertain and inform, they no longer overpower the beholder. This may reflect a new attitude characteristic of the thirteenth century and its more enlightened public. The scenes of Genesis, for example, follow closely a fifth-century manuscript, but here and there the thirteenth-century mosaicist surprises us with faithfully rendered ducks and cocks, geese and cranes, or with the precise representation of a saw. Here it becomes painfully difficult to decide whether such a detail is observed from life or copied from a model. (I would like to believe the first.)

Iconographically the extremely detailed illustration of the story of Joseph remains puzzling. It is tempting to assume, with Demus, that the special importance of Egypt for the legend of Saint Mark may have been the motive for the unusual inclusion of this “Egyptian” cycle among the Old Testament mosaics. This may, however, remain an open question. Certainly we can agree with Demus that the scenes from the life of Joseph—and especially those in the third cupola—are a high point of thirteenth-century are not only in Venice but in all Italy and even in Europe. They are classic in a very quiet and luxurious, very Venetian way.

Otto Demus has written the standard study of the mosaics of San Marco in Venice. It will be used as a reference book as long as interest in medieval art endures. He has been lucky to find a publisher who was able and ready to print these four volumes with more than a thousand illustrations—a monumental achievement. Naturally, the discussion of details will go on. Demus’s subtle distinctions among styles will probably lose interest and one day it may no longer seem of decisive importance whether other scholars are or are not convinced by every one of his stylistic observations. But Demus has done more. He has written the first great chapter of the long and glorious history of the art of Venice. Something of the specific quality of the mosaics of San Marco—of their quiet golden splendor—seems to be present as the silent background of later Venetian painting; and it is with this thoughtful and sensitive suggestion that Otto Demus concludes his magnum opus.

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