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Venice: Going for Glory

The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello

by Margaret L. King
University of Chicago Press, 484 pp., $64.95; $19.95 (paper)

The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

by Margaret F. Rosenthal
University of Chicago Press, 391 pp., $50.00; $18.95 (paper)

The central character in Margaret King’s book is a high official of the Venetian Republic who passed himself off as a military commander. The subject of Margaret Rosenthal’s book is a beautiful Venetian courtesan who wanted to be thought of as virtuous and cultured. Separated by a century, the lives of Jacopo Antonio Marcello (1398–c.1464) and Veronica Franco (1546–1591) had two things in common: they both lived when Venice was at the height of its splendor and they both wished to seem other than they were. Both the official and the courtesan tried to use literature to construct a new image of themselves. Marcello hired professional writers to celebrate, in fine manuscript Latin, the hero he would like to have been; Franco wrote about herself in the fresh vernacular that had recently taken over from Latin as the language of modern Italian culture, and she had her work published.

Constructed like a detective story, King’s book follows up every available clue to construct a portrait of a unique and enigmatic character. Not only, as it turns out, did Jacopo Marcello distort the facts to present himself as superior to his actual position in the Venetian Republic, but he also showed himself to be genuinely different from his contemporaries when he had to deal with life and death in his own family.

King’s inquiry starts with the story of Jacopo Antonio’s eight-year-old son, Valerio, who died on January 1, 1461, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. Infant mortality of course was extremely high and the loss of a young child was a common event, seldom seen as important in the history of a fifteenth-century family. Moreover, Valerio was neither an only son nor the firstborn, and several of his brothers were alive to pass on the family name. But Jacopo Antonio reacted to the child’s death in a completely unexpected fashion. In a culture that considered tears a sign of weakness incompatible with manly dignity and believed that mourning beyond the appropriate period was a threat to public order, Marcello caused a scandal by flaunting his desperation over the loss of his son. “I disintegrate in sorrow,” he said, and he decided to immortalize his grief in an extraordinary book, whose manuscript is now owned by the library of the University of Glasgow. Though never completed with the illustrations planned for it, the book, King writes, includes “fifteen works by fourteen authors—letters, a poem, consolatory treatises, history, eulogy, and apology”—and it is “perhaps the largest and most richly textured of the funerary collections of the Renaissance.”

The Glasgow manuscript appears at first to be a solemn funeral commemoration produced by writers in honor of an exceptional child, at once handsome, intelligent, virtuous, and courageous. Valerio seems to have had an unusually close relationship with his father, while for his part Jacopo Antonio tended to see himself reflected in his son; he thought he saw in the boy’s features the promise of a new and glorious future for his family. The Glasgow manuscript is not just a memorial to a dead child. It can also be seen as a triumphal monument that Jacopo Antonio erected to his own glory, in violation of the accepted rules of Venetian decorum. It was, moreover, a borrowed and trumped-up glory, and King devotes some fascinating pages to showing the discrepancy between the man and the image that he tried to project.

During Marcello’s lifetime, Venice was engaged in a series of expansionist wars during which Padua, Vicenza, and Verona all came under the rule of the Republic and a thirty-year struggle took place with Milan for the control of Lombardy. Having been primarily a maritime power until the end of the fourteenth century, Venice was now attempting to become a major political player on the complex chessboard of the Italian peninsula. Marcello devoted much of his active life to these military campaigns, and had an important part in some of the battles with Milan. It was, however, a very different part from the one he claimed.

The Venetian Republic usually entrusted the command of its land-based armies to foreign mercenaries. It did not want to give any of its own citizens the chance to usurp the powers jealously guarded by the Venetian oligarchy. But in order to assess the ability of its generals and to oversee their strategic decisions, the Republic appointed a special category of officials—provveditori—to work alongside them. These were Venetians, usually of noble birth, who were supposed to verify the reports of the mercenaries and act as consultants on military organization among other matters. An “adviser rather than a fighter,” a provveditore was an important figure, but he never commanded troops in the field. Marcello served as provveditore for many years and was the first Venetian to make a career of being one, instead of alternating the job with other public offices as was the custom.

Marcello’s real ambition was to be a military commander—a fighter, not an adviser. He thus posed as a fighter, disregarding both the reality of his situation and the code of “understatement and reserve” that prevailed in Venice, with its insistence that the nobleman’s first concern be “for the city, not for himself.” Nor was Marcello satisfied with moving from his palazzo on the Grand Canal to a castle in Monselice, where he lived like a warrior prince, surrounded by armed soldiers. To show the world he was a fighting soldier, history had to be rewritten, and Marcello hired a team of humanists to do exactly that.

By 1450, before the Glasgow manuscript was written, he commissioned a number of writers, the humanist and pedagogue Guarino Veronese, and the poets Janus Pannonius and Giovanni Michele Alberto Carrara, to compose panegyrics celebrating the high points in his career. These were particularly the courageous defense of Casalmaggiore against the troops of Filippo Maria Visconti (1438), the lifting by the Venetians of the siege of Brescia and the subsequent strategic retreat from Brescia to Verona (1438), the transfer, in the following year, of the Venetian fleet from the River Adige to Lake Garda, and the second glorious battle for Casalmaggiore—all important engagements in the long war between Milan and Venice.

In the panegyrics, Marcellus is said to have had the strength of “a second Hercules” and the valor of a Roman. Portrayed as a latter day “Roman general”—he claimed to be a descendant of Marcus Claudius Marcellus—with the audacity of Hannibal, and the cunning of Xerxes, he emerges as the one and only hero and commander of the Venetian army. Many of these victories were in fact brought about by the commander in chief of the Republic, the famous Gattamelata, or by the other commanders Marcello had worked with as provveditore. “The reports of Marcello’s career,” King writes,

were more literary fabrications than histories built on eyewitness reports. They range from exaggeration to wholesale misrepresentation. The accounts of that nobleman’s deeds offered by humanists, genealogists and inscriptions alike do not square with the story told by the chroniclers.

It is in the Glasgow manuscript, however, that Marcello’s plan for self-glorification is most meticulously laid out. Ten of the fifteen sections on the young Valerio’s death refer to the father’s military career; all of them mention the same battles, use the same metaphors, and draw on the same historical and mythological parallels. “The continuity among the panegyrics.” King observes, “is so strong as to posit the existence of a ‘fact sheet,’ a kind of press release, from Marcello’s immediate circle, used by all subsequent authors.” It was in trying to reconstruct such a fact sheet that King was able to identify the humanist sources of Marcello’s heroic fantasies.

Among the texts that could have influenced Marcello’s hired eulogists, King makes much of the dedication to him that opens Guarino’s translation from the Greek into Latin of the Greek historian Strabo’s Geography, written in the first century BC. Strabo’s work was important for the understanding of the ancient world, and the translation, begun in 1453, had the patronage of Pope Nicholas V. The project was going to be shelved when the Pope died, but Marcello stepped in to finance it. Guarino’s dedication mentions his military success, fitting in with Marcello’s strategy to show himself as a military commander, but it also portrays Marcello as a humanist and patron of the arts, a man of letters interested in the classical world and able to produce extraordinary books. The copy of the Guarino translation which Marcello had prepared for King René d’Anjou, the pretender to the Neapolitan throne, is considered, King tells us, “one of the supreme accomplishments of the Quattrocento in the sphere of the book.”

But Strabo’s Geography was not the first literary gift the noble Venetian had sent René. In 1452 Marcello had given him the Latin translation of a legend entitled De sacerdotio Jesu Christi, and in 1453 he had sent him a Vita di San Maurizio—the patron-saint of the house of Anjou. The second of these books included a miniature portrait—probably by Andrea Mantegna—of Marcello himself. Marcello had thus managed to insert a very modern sort of message in an obscure medieval hagiography. As King writes in her fascinating reconstruction, “the portrait bust in stark profile [was] executed at an era when only great men were so depicted.” It prefigured the epoch-making portrait, “painted in 1474–1475 by the master Piero della Francesca, of that most beloved of the condottieri princes and patrons, Francesco da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino.” In images as well as in words, Marcello created a picture of himself driven not so much by megalomania as by the Renaissance belief in the importance of the individual. No longer identified with the collective destiny of family, city, and society, this modern person was at last, in Leon Battista Alberti’s famous words, “faber fortunae suae“—the maker of his own fortune.

Inspired by a humanist culture and very much ahead of their time, Marcello’s aspirations were bound to collide with the political realities of the mid-fifteenth century, thus forcing him once again to seek refuge in art and literature. Approaching his fiftieth year, he probably realized that he had no more than a modest place in the political and military machine of the Venetian Republic, which demanded that he sacrifice his personal inclinations to the shifting interests of the state. He had to give up his friendship with the two people he most admired, the learned and chivalrous René d’Anjou, and the great military commander Carlo Ludovico Sforza, both former allies and now enemies of Venice. From the 1450s on, “the adventures that preoccupied Marcello were literary.” While continuing to serve the Venetian Republic, he no longer had any illusions about his military career. The provveditore became a patron of the arts, a collector and publisher, and he gathered around him a small circle of scholars, entrusting them, among other things, with the task of reconstructing the story of his life in a way that would satisfy his dreams and ambitions.

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