The Nervous Republic


The history of Venice began, according to one legend, with Attila the Hun. In the year 452, as the nomad chieftain and his horde swept down the Italian peninsula toward Rome, a few bands of refugees along the Adriatic coast withdrew to the low, silty islands of the Venetian lagoon to shelter among the reeds until the Scourge of God had passed. Out of this havoc, on this shifty soil, their descendants gradually built a city, powerful, beautiful, and eternally nervous. For Venice, long after achieving its self-styled designation as the Se-renissima Res Publica, the Most Serene Republic, never lost either its initial give-and-take with the sea or its refugee sense of insecurity.

What serenity the city enjoyed depended, like its very physical existence, on ceaseless labor, secured by ceaseless vigilance. At the height of Venetian power, between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the Most Serene Republic’s symbolic winged lion lorded it over an empire that stretched from Constantinople to Crete, serenity was still as slippery as silt, as delicately human an artifact as everything else Venetian. The serenity of Venice was always as much myth as it was reality. And like any myth, the story of “Venice the Undisturbed” begged insistently to be retold.

In the first of five lectures dedicated to Myths of Venice, the art historian David Rosand introduces the myth of Venetian serenity by quoting “the most eloquent cultural voice of Italy, Petrarch himself,” who wrote of the city in 1364 as

the one home of liberty, peace, and justice, the one refuge of honorable men, haven for those who, battered on all sides by the storms of tyranny and war, seek to live in tranquility. Rich in gold but richer in fame, built on solid marble but standing more solid on a foundation of civic concord, surrounded by salt waters but more secure with the salt of good counsel…, Venice rejoices at the outcome, which is as it should be: the victory not of arms but of justice.1

Petrarch was dazzled above all, as Rosand observes, by the city’s climate of intellectual freedom; this passionate fourteenth-century book collector was even willing to trade in his library just for the privilege of living there. Venetian freedom, however, was always precarious; Garry Wills’s new book, Venice: Lion City, is notable above all for its poignant evocation of the city’s abiding sense of insecurity, and for the pains Wills takes to describe the sheer amount of hard work needed to keep that insecurity at bay. What he says about that hard-won, tenuous Venetian political serenity applies in fact to every aspect of this remarkable city’s existence, physical, social, political, and religious:

Venetian “serenity”…used to be attributed to the planned or fortuitous machinery of the city’s institutions. But institutions, good or bad, work only if you want them to work. And the motive for maintaining the solidarity of the Venetian project did not come from lack of unrest or from perfect devices for controlling it. It came, as much of all social esprit does, from the sense of mutual need in a situation of peril. The Venetians were performing a high-wire act, and they knew it. Usually safe at home, they were never secure there…. The base had to be solid because the far-flung outworks that rested on its were so vulnerable.

The buildings of Venice, unlike its polity, rested on anything but a solid base; they arose on endless clumps of wooden pilings, most of them driven deep into the ground centuries ago and preserved—literally pickled—in salt water. Perhaps it has always been the fragility of Venice, its evanescence, that captivates more than any other quality, for it is a city where the precariousness of life itself has made life all the more civil and all the more beautiful. Today Venice lulls its visitors by the lapping waters of its canals, the singsong cadences of its dialect, the lacework of its architecture, the soft seductiveness of its art, and the neat circumscription of the city itself; sprawl has been relegated to the mainland industrial slums of Mestre and Marghera. And now that the doge of Venice, clad in his brocaded robes and peculiar horned hat, the corno, has been replaced by one among many Italian mayors in sleek business suits, it is more tempting than ever to idealize the workings of a government that ceased to exist in 1797, a scant decade after its example inspired the framers of the United States’ Constitution to formulate their own version of the Venetians’ dynamic balance among three types of governmental systems: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.

Always, however, the often invoked “myth of Venice” as a free, harmonious republic has had two sides. Membership in the city’s Greater Council (Consiglio Maggiore) was permanently restricted—“locked”—in 1297 to include only a few families, about 5 percent of the population. By the sixteenth century the withering arrogance of a Venetian patrician must have been nearly insufferable, and several popes decided not to suffer it after all, putting the city under interdict—collective excommunication. A haughty Venetian ambassador, Alvise Pisani, can bear a good deal of the blame for ensuring that the papacy would join France and the Holy Roman Empire in attacking the Venetian mainland—terra ferma —in 1509: insulated at home by his artificial social status, Pisani snubbed the Rome-based banker who was directing negotiations for Pope Julius II. Merchants were excluded from government in Venice. (Two years later, that banker, Agostino Chigi, was sitting in on private sessions of various Venetian state councils to hammer out a treaty with the papacy, the perfect government of Venice suddenly adjusted to the realities of war, peace, and capitalism.)2The island of Crete still celebrates its liberation from Venetian rule in 1667 by the Ottoman Turks, one oppressor replaced by another. The winged Lion of Saint Mark that has served for centuries as the city’s symbol may hold an open Bible that says “Peace,” but the lion’s peace was always enforced tooth and claw.3

Wills’s own background as a classicist turns him back, time and again, to analogies between the “older, tougher” Venice, the “Lion City” of his title, and Periclean Athens, another maritime republic with an empire on its hands and a glittering legacy to the arts. Like democratic Athens, Venice developed a government that acknowledged how much it owed to people outside the tiny patrician class—the other 95 percent of the population: the bankers who financed the city’s military forces and its trade; the Jewish scholars who took their medical degrees from the resolutely open-minded University of Padua and practiced both their faith and their profession with relative freedom; the battery of skilled workers who made the Arsenal of Venice an industrial assembly line for ships, sails, and weaponry centuries before Henry Ford cobbled together his first Model T.

The skill of a Venetian gondolier is still a wonder to behold; on their expertise Wills quotes Mark Twain at length, that former navigator on the Mississippi dazzled by his Venetian colleagues’ professional skill. In order to capitalize on this carefully cultivated local talent, Venetian galleys, like the triremes of impe-rial Athens, were entrusted to citizen rowers rather than prisoners or slaves.4 And like Athens, Venice griev-ously wasted too many of its women, especially the patrician girls who served as pawns in dynastic marriages or were simply clapped into convents.

To illustrate, Wills examines Vittore Carpaccio’s famous painting Two Women, executed perhaps between 1493 and 1495, of two sumptuously clad Venetian matrons sitting on a balcony. For years the pair’s elaborate hairstyles and low-cut bodices led art historians to identify them as courtesans, who once comprised the largest group of professional women in the city—and one of its chief attractions. Recent research has made it clear, however, that Carpaccio’s two women are, in fact, respectable aristocratic wives. With great compassion for these sour-faced ladies toying distractedly with their pet birds and dogs, Wills brings out the sheer poison of their ennui as their husbands, portrayed in a companion panel now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, spend the morning hunting birds on the lagoon. As Wills remarks,

The contrast between the two scenes—the sheltered and idle women waiting at home, the active men out dominating nature—is almost didactically proto-feminist in its sympathy for those left behind in their gilded cage.

Again as in Athens, another international entrepôt, many of the women who made careers on their own were forced to do so as courtesans: poets like Veronica Franco or Gaspara Stampa, who, far from reveling in their positions as professional charmers, declared that they would have chosen any other calling had they been given the choice. On the other hand, the first woman to take a university degree anywhere in the world was a Venetian aristocrat, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, who earned her laurels as a philosopher in 1678 at the University of Padua.

Most of all, like Periclean Athens, imperial Venice understood the persuasive power that beautiful works of art and architecture could muster—hence both cities were eager looters of art as well as creators. To underscore its status as a conquering power, Venice made masterful use of its artistic booty: the four ancient Roman horses, snatched from Constantinople in 1204, that race above the portals of San Marco; the wonderful menagerie of marble lions standing outside the gates of the Arsenal; the clever collages of ancient colored stone, medieval sculptures, and Renaissance frames that make up the tombs of doges, as well as secluded chapels and proud façades. All of these are enduring proof, like Venice itself, that variety can create its own aesthetic—what the ancient Greeks and Romans called poikilia—color.

Through the eloquent imagery of carved stone, paint, inlay, jewelry, embroidery, mosaic, and blown glass, an entire world of objects rallied citizens and residents by retelling heroic stories about the vigilance of their divine protectors and the virtue of their own hardworking ancestors, the “myths of Venice” about which Rosand writes with such flair and affection. Athena in Athens may have been replaced in Venice by the Virgin Mary, Lord Poseidon by the God of Abraham, King Theseus by Saint Mark, but the tales themselves are remarkably similar, of human brawn and ingenuity pitted against the might of the elements, of hospitality to strangers, of keeping the seaways clear for trade and for conquest. At the same time, by investing so pointedly in the sheer opulence of their buildings, both Athens and Venice were able to suggest still greater reserves of military and economic might than they actually commanded. It took a mind such as that of Agostino Chigi (himself a famous patron of art) or the Greek historian Thucydides to see beyond the glitter: “If [Athens] were deserted,” Thucydides wrote, “but its temples and the foundations of its buildings were left, you would guess from the city’s showy appearance that it was twice as powerful as it was in reality.”5

Thucydides also reports that Pericles himself, who diverted tribute money from military defense into temples, art galleries, and statues, told the Athe-nians “something like this” (toiade):

Look on the city’s real power day after day, and fall in love with her, and if she seems great to you, remember that men built these things who knew what needed to be done and dared to do it, and if they fell short of their goal, they never thought to deprive the city of their talent; they gave her their best.6

The Venetians made Pericles’ same plea, not through one leader’s ringing speech, but through the unstinting production of works of art, both humble and distinguished, executed over centuries spent pulling together against the natural elements and in building up the city. Importantly, moreover, the effort of pulling together included outsiders and foreigners as integral parts of the population. What the eminent Venetian scholar Vittore Branca says of modern tourists was no less true of visitors to the Lion City:

The inhabitants of a city are not only the people recorded at the Registry office, but also, precisely, those who come to admire her, who eat here, who wander through her streets. The population of a city today is also made up of the people who live in it for a few hours, not just those who spend their entire lives.7

Venetian art always addressed both kinds of Venetians, the natives and the visitors, in different, carefully personalized terms. Modern tourists collect carnival masks, T-shirts, miniature gondolas, and glittering bits of Murano glass; their predecessors on the Grand Tour admired the colorful precision of eighteenth-century vedute (“views”) by Canaletto, Bellotto, and Guardi, produced largely for visitors craving a reminder of what they had seen, or imagined seeing, in the Venetians’ floating world.8

Venetian insider art, on the other hand, told and retold the complicated stories of the city’s divine protectors, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saints Theodore and Mark, or touted the virtues of Venetians living and dead through symbols that were meant to seem as impenetrable from the outside as the passages and canals of the city itself. Both Wills’s Venice: Lion City and Rosand’s Myths of Venice provide expert guidance through the intricacies of this more private Venetian artistic symbolism, revealing its underlying sense much as a good map will reveal the basic rationality behind the city’s complex web of islands, paths, and waterways. Designed for the curious general reader, physically compact, fluidly written, both books make ideal, and complementary, traveling companions. And although it is a more specialized scholarly monograph, Debra Pincus’s The Tombs of the Doges of Venice has much in common with them, for her book, too, sets out a clear, absorbing story about how the institutions of the Venetian state emerged side by side with the language of Venetian art.

Situated at the innermost reaches of the Adriatic Sea, the Venetians were eventually able to make that vast Mediterranean gulf their virtual private port, where German merchants found their entrance into Italy and Easterners found their gateway to the West. Venetian art, therefore, reflected the energetic interchange of the city’s marketplaces, to which Byzantine Greeks offered figures of vivid color and stately majesty while Islamic traders contributed elaborate brocades, silks, filigreed stone, and metalwork, scrupulously avoiding human images. By the fifteenth century, the artists of central Italy were beginning to emulate their ancient ancestors by concentrating on the human body as the very basis of beautiful proportion. Flemish traders were bringing their lustrous oil paintings from home and French merchants, meanwhile, came with illuminated manuscripts. Venetian taste absorbed it all, never more distinctively than in the Basilica of St. Mark, whose fantastic gilded domes, glittering mosaics, and dense encrustations of sculpture are, together with the Doges’ Palace next door, still the chief glory of Venice. Here at the city’s very heart, more emphatically than anywhere else, the book of Venice is written in images for visitors and natives alike, ordered, as both Rosand and Wills emphasize, by the twelve months, the four seasons, and the long course of history.

Appropriately for a city that was both a crossroads for traders and an island that lived on imports, Venice acquired her patron saint from somewhere else. The first patron saint of Venice had been Theodore, a Greek soldier-saint who reflected the city’s early status as a dependency of Byzantium. As the Venetians grew increasingly independent, they sought a new protector, and found one in the gruff evangelist Saint Mark, who had preached in Northern Italy before traveling on to martyrdom in Alexandria. Venice itself, of course, would not exist for another three centuries. One of the great Venetian myths, therefore, recounts the improbable story of how a long-deceased Saint Mark effected the “translation” (the term used for moving saintly relics) of his miracle-working body from Alexandria in Egypt to a city he had never known on the Adriatic coast.

Thus when a pair of Venetian merchants stole the relics of Saint Mark from Alexandria in 829, allegedly to save them from desecration by Muslims, Venice concocted a direct connection to the saint. Local legend had held for centuries that Mark, baptized by Saint Peter himself, followed the chief apostle from Judaea to Rome and then, after writing his gospel, set out to preach at Aquileia, north of Venice, on the mainland. There he ordained Aquileia’s first patriarch before moving on, at last, to Egypt.

The story had been used for centuries to justify Aquileia’s lofty place in the political hierarchy of the Church, but in 829 the Venetians added a new episode: as Mark set forth from Aquileia, a sudden storm forced him to take shelter in the Venetian lagoon, dropping anchor on the banks of what would someday be the Grand Canal. That night, as he slept, an angel appeared to him, saying, “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist,” meaning not only that Mark should put away his terror at the storm, but also, pointedly, that in this very place his body would someday find its ultimate rest. Both Wills and Rosand show how the invention of this pious fiction severed Venice from the authority of patriarchal Aquileia and of papal Rome, giving divine sanction to the city as an independent republic. Suddenly the symbolic winged lion that had been part of Saint Mark’s imagery from the early Christian era became, as well, an image of Venice.

With infectious enthusiasm and evocative prose, Rosand, a seasoned art historian with a firm grasp of Venetian politics, and Wills, a seasoned political writer with a voracious eye for art, trace the further adventures of Saint Mark and his relics through the glittering medieval mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica and the great enameled altar called the Golden Altar (Pala D’Oro). Among the most important works ever commissioned by the Venetian state, they embody public art at its most gorgeous, so enduringly so that the lines of visitors who waited to see San Marco and its Pala this summer stretched from the basilica itself to the waterfront where Mark is once supposed to have had his angelic dream.


In 1562, a well-to-do Venetian doctor named Tommaso Rangone commissioned another retelling of Saint Mark’s legend from the young painter Jacopo Tintoretto for the confraternity associated with the great basilica, the Scuola Grande di San Marco. Rosand writes evocatively about how spectacularly disturbing the style of these paintings must have been when they were first exhibited, with their sharply tilted perspectives, the rough, unfinished quality of oil paint laid down in thick daubs or diluted to transparency and leached into the canvas like a stain. To a contemporary viewer, who can see almost all of the series in the Galleria dell’Accademia, they are still impressive, huge—Tintoretto, like many other Venetian painters, could work oil on a colossal scale—and wild; after all these centuries, he still communicates his own excitement at his crazy compositions and the sheer joy of playing with paint.

Wills, for his part, zeroes in on the character of Tommaso Rangone (1493– 1577), the cheerfully self-promoting patron who features prominently in every holy episode. Coming to Venice only in his thirties, Rangone was excluded by definition from the Great Council or any other political post. Like many talented “foreign” residents, therefore, he exerted power by other means, first as physician to the Venetian fleet, then as consultant to the Republic on public health, as professor of anatomy, as an author of how-to books like How Venetians Can Always Stay Healthy (1565) and How a Man Can Live More Than 120 Years (1556), and finally as a public benefactor.

Remarkably, Rangone became the president of two of the great confraternities known as Scuole Grandi (or, as Wills translates the phrase, “Distinguished Brotherhoods”), received a knighthood from one doge, the title “Champion of Religion and Defender of Virtue” from another, and the degree of Count Palatine from Emperor Maximilian II. Both Rosand and Wills clearly enjoy describing the vanity of this talented egomaniac, because, foibles aside, Tommaso Rangone had a superb eye for art; when the Scuola di San Marco decided that Tintoretto’s Saint Mark cycle was too much for their tastes, Rangoni took the great paintings home, where he must have enjoyed them in delectable privacy.

Like Saint Mark, the Virgin Mary was also the source of a host of Venetian legends tailored to show her special preference for this most independent of cities. “City,” in Greek, Latin, and Italian, is a feminine noun; on occasion, the personification of Venetia in Venetian public art is almost indistinguishable from images of the Virgin Mary, and deliberately so. If Mary is the Queen of Heaven beyond all worlds, Venice is the queen of the seas in this one. Not surprisingly, therefore, Venetians gravitated to portrayals of Mary’s majesty: her coronation by Jesus in the outer reaches of Heaven, or her assumption, the heavenward flight that brought her bodily out of her grave and up to the place of her coronation. And once again, both Rosand and Wills take evident delight in the Venetians’ artistic homage to their queen of earthly seas and celestial spheres.

As with the legend of Saint Mark, sixteenth-century Venetian oil painting retells the story of Mary in its most impressive form since the majestic mosaics of San Marco. Titian painted an Assumption of the Virgin in 1518 for the Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (of the Friars) that was destined to make history; it established Titian himself as a painter of superlative talent, and its vertiginous projection into Heaven’s deep space opened out new worlds for exploration: the flat, striped canopy that had represented Heaven for so long would no longer do. Debra Pincus shows how Titian’s Virgin borrows her clothing and gestures from her medieval mosaic predecessor in San Marco, but this great and appreciative painter of women gives Mary an expression that, at once fearful and ecstatic, is as unforgettable for its psychological penetration as the original Byzantine mosaic must have been for its supernal calm.9

For another cavernous space, the Hall of the Great Council, Tintoretto painted a gigantic Coronation of the Virgin in which Christ is also, at the same time, crowning Venetia. Commissioned to inspire the proceedings of the greatest governing body of the Venetian state, Tintoretto’s Coronation comes in for close attention and a color plate from both Rosand and Wills, both of whom deftly interweave political meaning with artistic achievement. Each of them also, however, gives a color plate and special consideration to a very different image of the Virgin, Titian’s Presentation in the Temple (still in its original site in what is now the Galleria dell’Accademia), extraordinary not only for the splendid texture and luminosity of Titian’s oils, but still more so for his empathetic portrayal of Mary as a courageous little girl mounting the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem “all by herself.”

But divine favor could not create Venice without human help. The tireless ancestors who constructed the Lion City on underwater pilings and sustained it with their handiwork are honored everywhere on the portals of the Doges’ Palace, the humblest Venetian citizens honored on the residence of the city’s grandest. The relief sculptures that display the months with their characteristic labors give the city what Wills calls a “discipline of time.” Another relief of the twelve months honors craftsmen: coopers, cobblers, shepherds, vintners, and, importantly, one worker who rests from his toil. Sculptures on the ducal palace and on the façade of San Marco celebrate the industry of the Hebrew patriarchs, from Adam and Eve to Noah; Venice, a city built by the people of a diaspora, could easily identify with ancient Israel, and just as flexibly with the doughty citizens of ancient Greece or Republican Rome. The cosmopolitan realities of Venice, however, more nearly resembled Alexandria, the sophisticated city that harbored Saint Mark’s proselytes as well as his executioners. Although the relationships of Venice with Greek and Roman antiquity and with Byzantium have been noted, and persuasively, there is still much to be said on how Venice might mirror Hellenistic Egypt.10

What the English visitor Andrew Borde had to say in 1542 of Venice, then still the fierce Lion City, is no less true of Venice today: “Whosever that hath not seene the noble citie of Venis hath not seene the beewtye and ryches of thys worlde.” Those “ryches” are not only visual. The idea of a divinely guided republic put forth in the Venetians’ civic mythology would, like Periclean Athens, captivate the founders of the United States and many another democracy for which the myth of Venice, with its elaborate governmental checks and balances, has served as a model. But above all it is “beewtye” that makes the continued existence of Venice itself so indispensable, and still so current.

  1. 1

    Francesco Petrarca, Epistolae seniles IV.3 (1364), cited in David Rosand, Myths of Venice, p. 7.

  2. 2

    See Felix Gilbert, The Pope, His Banker, and Venice (Harvard University Press, 1980).

  3. 3

    Literally it says “Peace to you, Mark, my evangelist” (Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus).

  4. 4

    A fully preserved Venetian galley, the only one known, is now being excavated from the Venetian lagoon by a complicated dredging operation; see Massimo Spampani, “Riaffiora a Venezia una galea della Serenissima” (“A Venetian Galley Surfaces Again in Venice”), Corriere della sera, August 20, 2001.

  5. 5

    Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I.10.2. This and subsequent translations are the author’s.

  6. 6

    Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II.43.1. The speech uses the unequivocal word for men, andres, to describe these founders; another passage famously enjoins women to keep silent.

  7. 7

    Vittore Branca, “Branca: Ma qui c’è una vitalità straordinaria” (“But Here There Is An Extraordinary Vitality”), interview with Valerio Pellizzari in Il Messaggero, August 10, 2001, p. 6.

  8. 8

    For an earlier era of Venetian tourist art, see Bruce Redford, Venice and the Grand Tour (Yale University Press, 1998).

  9. 9

    For Titian specifically as a painter of women, see Rona Goffen, Titian’s Women (Yale University Press, 1997; reviewed in The New York Review, March 18, 1999), although that book does not treat images of the Virgin.

  10. 10

    See Patricia Fortini Brown, Venice and Antiquity (Yale University Press, 1997), reviewed in The New York Review, November 6, 1997.