Like Plato’s Athens, eighteenth-century Venice no longer played much of a part on any political stage, but that fact had virtually no effect on the vibrancy of the city’s cultural life. The merchant-aristocrats who had once ruled the Mediterranean might be lords now of only their farms on the neighboring mainland, but their reduced circumstances hardly seemed to matter; the world still came calling. Indeed, the world may well have had more to learn from this older, more humble Venice than from Venice in its arrogant heyday, when the Most Serene Republic held sway over Constantinople, Crete, and the Adriatic Sea.
There is, in fact, no compelling reason to think that temporal power and insight must bear any relationship to one another, nor that loss of power necessarily leads to decadence rather than wisdom, in people or states. Though Thucydides famously had Pericles tell the Athenians “We are the school of Hellas,” it was another Athens altogether that would become a school to the world: an Athens chastened by ruinous military defeat, the Athens of Plato, Aristotle, and then of the philosophical schools, a city of enduring, radiant, and no longer overbearing beauty. Thucydides himself began as an ambitious Athenian general, but he wrote his history in exile after a failed campaign—really a failed colonial adventure—that immeasurably deepened his thinking about strategy, resources, and power. The fact that eighteenth-century Venetians had long since deferred to the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean and to Britain in the Ocean Sea meant that they could spend their time in other pursuits, not all of them necessarily frivolous. And certainly, the eighteenth-century city was no less beautiful than its more potent, militant predecessor; it may have been more beautiful still.
That eighteenth-century phenomenon we know as the Enlightenment seems to have come to Venice in a literal burst of light, refracted as the picture-perfect perspectives of Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto, and Francesco Guardi, the soft pastels of Rosalba Carriera, and the brilliant billowing clouds of Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Tiepolo’s ceiling frescoes. Not since Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina in the late fifteenth century had painters reveled so happily in the brilliance of Venetian light on a sunny day, when sky, water, and city glitter off one another; instead, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Giorgione’s Tempest seems to have brought on a spate of stormy artistic weather: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, working especially in oil on canvas, all built their paintings up from a dark brown ground that encouraged the creation of deep contrasts between light and shadow, in clouds, in figures, in architecture. The works of these supreme masters are monumental, majestic, and, in their incessant play of light against darkness, suggestively enigmatic. Altogether, they evoke a Venice of tremendous power and authority—indeed, Tintoretto’s Paradiso for the great hall of the Doges’ Palace (1588–1590) is the largest oil painting in the world, a beatific vision that links the city and its government …
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