02 September, 2006

100. Farewell - for now

I've decided to take a break from writing this daily blog.

If you are one of the small handful of people who visited this site regularly over the last few months, and have enjoyed my daily stories of all things Venetian, then I am sorry if that disappoints you.

I enjoy writing about this wonderful place. I have never found it difficult to find ideas enough to stay four or five posts ahead of my self-imposed daily deadline, but the thinking and writing and checking and rewriting does take more time than may be apparent from the results, and I now want to devote that time to something different but related – at least for a while.

I'll leave you for now with another, less common, view of the magnificent Doge's Palace.

On each of the three visible corners of the upper gallery is a beautiful archangel. More Renaissance in style than Gothic, the sculptures of Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel must have been added later – probably after the 16th century fire.

This one is Gabriel. In Christianity, it was Gabriel who told Mary (and Joseph) she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit – which is why he is seen here with an Annunciation lily in his left hand; in Islam, it was Gabriel who revealed the Q'uran to Muhammed and accompanied him during his post mortem ascension into heaven; in Judaism, Gabriel was the force that prevented Abraham from slaying Isaac, and told Noah to get the animals into the Ark; and it will be Gabriel who blows his horn to announce Judgment Day (presumably a non-denominational event).

I think this exquisite sculpture is exactly what an angel ought to look like. Don't you agree?

01 September, 2006

99. The only real palace

For a long time, the Doge's Palace was the only building in Venice allowed to be called a 'palazzo'. All the other palaces in Venice were simply called 'casa' – house – hence the names Ca' d'Oro, and Ca' Rezzonico, and Ca' Dario for some of the other magnificent palaces in this finest of all cities.

And that was justified, because all of the others shrink from comparison with this greatest of all gothic palaces, so different from everything that preceded it, whose architectural influence was felt almost immediately and reverberated for centuries.

The beautiful cloister-like colonnade at ground level - which has a biblical story carved into each corner (see #22, June 14), and a unique carved marble theme on every capital low enough for passers-by to see every detail - anchors the structure almost like guy ropes holding it down as if the whole thing would fly away like a hot air balloon if they ever let go.

Above it, even taller gallery arcades along the whole length of the Piazetta and Riva Schiavoni sides of the palace carry twice as many columns as the arcade below. Quatrefoils, not on top of the arches at the point like those in the Frari church but nestling between each of the arches, look from below like decorative details yet each one is taller than a man and massive enough collectively to support the forty foot high wall above.

And yes, the wall above. Boxy and rectangular, the palace's upper story is half the height of the building and houses some of the most spectacular rooms you could imagine, high-ceilinged council chambers capable of commanding awe and loyalty from friends of the republic, but equally capable of striking terror into its enemies. It should seem oppressively heavy for the delicate tracery below that supports it, yet the effect of the pink diamond patterned brickwork is light and airy like a damask tablecloth skirt. The massive flat wall area is punctuated by window holes that echo the shape and size of the lower arcade arches.

This palace started life as a 9th century fortified castle, and was rebuilt and enlarged several times after a series of fires. The design of the facades are from the 14th century, and the upper story was rebuilt after a fire in the 16th century destroyed most of the top half including – among many other artworks - several huge Giovanni Bellini murals. Oh, what a loss that was.

This palace is unique in so many ways, and it defined the meaning of the term 'Venetian Gothic' for everything that came after it. I love the fact that it is about 700 years old but it looks like it could have been built yesterday.

31 August, 2006

98. Social climbing

Since its earliest days, Venice was ruled by its aristocracy, by the members of the old established patrician families. In 1325, this was formalised by the creation of a Golden Book, Il Libro d'Oro, which documented the names and lineages of these ruling families. If your name was not in the book, you could never be elected Doge, nor could you even be part of the Great Council, an automatic right that belonged only to the 2000 or so members of the 134 aristocratic families.

This palazzo, now known as Ca' Rezzonico, was built by Filippo Bon, a member of one of those great and ancient families. In 1649 he engaged Baldessare Longhena, the same architect who built the great church of Santa Maria della Salute, and began to build this huge palazzo with a marble facade. Neither man saw the job finished. Longhena died in 1682 and soon after, the Bon family suffered a financial collapse and work stopped.

Because of a war with Turkey, the coffers of the city of Venice were also pretty well empty at this time, too, because it was possible then - for a very substantial donation, of course - to buy your way into the Golden Book, and suddenly leap to the top of Venetian society. This is what the very wealthy but nouveau-riche Rezzonico family did, and they also purchased the unfinished palace from the impoverished Bon family.

The Rezzonico family never managed to produce a Doge from among their ranks, but their newly acquired noble status was nevertheless real and their upward social journey was complete by 1758, when Ludovico Rezzonico married into the powerful Savorgnan family, and Carlo Rezzonico was elected Pope as Clement XIII.

The rise of the Rezzonicos was as spectacular as it was brief. The last member of the family died in 1810, leaving only this palazzo to carry their name into posterity. Their fine family home is now owned by the city of Venice and it houses a wonderful collection of 18th century Venetian artworks.

30 August, 2006

97. The last hurrah

This very serious and impressive winged lion of St.Mark - clearly a lion this time and no other beast - commemorates what turned out to be the last futile attempt by Venice to try to regain some of its former glorious independence.

In 1797, Ludovico Manin, the last Doge, resigned when his city was taken over by Napoleon, who six months later signed Venice over to Austrian rule. During the next fifty years or so of Austrian occupation, much of the spark went out of Venice, it fell into decline and disrepair, with many of the fine old palaces abandoned and in some cases left derelict.

In 1847, Daniele Manin (who was no relation to the former Doge, but nevertheless a fierce Venetian patriot) presented a petition to the puppet consultative assembly that was critical of their Austrian masters, and he was promptly arrested and charged with high treason. The Venetian people rallied to the cause of this Austrian-hating lawyer and supporter of Italian unity and by March the next year the Austrian governor was forced to release him. But it was too late, rebellion was afoot and the Austrians soon lost control of the arsenal and they evacuated the city, leaving Manin to be proclaimed president of the Venetian Republic.

Determined to unify Venice with the rest of Italy, Manin resigned his powers in favour of Piedmont six months later, only to see Piedmont abandon Venetia to the newly reinforced Austrians who set about occupying the Venetian mainland and laying siege to the main city of Venice. The citizens stood firm against recapture and early in 1849, Manin was again appointed president, this time with unlimited powers to defend the city, which he did skillfully and energetically, to the best of his considerable organisational ability.

It was a doomed resistance. By August, ammunition and provisions were exhausted, and the Austrian batteries were close enough to start bombarding the city, at which point Manin negotiated an honourable amnesty, accepting exile for himself and a few others as the price of peace.

He never returned to his beloved Venice and died in exile in Paris in 1857. Two years after the Austrians left Venice for the last time in 1866, Manin's body was brought back to Venice and given a state funeral as the hero of the resistance, the man who gave the Lion of Venice its final roar.

29 August, 2006

96. A marble collage

When you get up close and look at the façade of St Mark's Cathedral you would think that it was made out of a motley collection of all kinds of second-hand bits and pieces some of which must have fallen off the back of a truck. And you would be right, it was.

Because of Venice's unique situation, every square inch of building material had to be imported, floated in on a boat. The cost of carriage was the same for sandstone as it was for jasper or porphyry, so it made sense to ensure that each shipload was as valuable as possible. Venetian merchant ships became effective scavengers of the ancient world, buying an old marble column here, bartering for a load of bas relief carved panels there, purloining whatever piece of alabaster that wasn't nailed down somewhere else. As the Venetian empire grew, the ships of war brought home even more prize building materials from other civilizations, and gradually, the facade of St Mark's became encrusted with this confusion of stonework from here, there, and everywhere, seemingly almost at random.

It literally is a potpourri, a hotch-potch of colours and textures and shapes that weren't designed to go together at all, an eclectic mix of variegated stuff, every piece of which competes for your urgent attention when you are close enough to see the separate elements of this fantastic encrustation. It ought not to work at all, but it does, and amazingly well.

When you get back far enough for the separate components to start to blur into one another something magical happens, and the whole cathedral becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. The colours and shapes blend and shimmer and are transformed as the light changes minute by minute so that the surface of this most unusual cathedral almost breathes with life and colour, sometimes tinged with this hue, sometimes dominated by that, but always presenting itself as a cohesive whole.

The serious architects of northern Europe built their soaring cathedrals from a uniform grey lime stone or beige sandstone, or in the case of St.Peter's in Rome from almost white marble, but the Venetians would have nothing to do with anything so uniformly conservative and boring. Instead they injected their joie de vivre into this church with every different type of stone they could find, colouring and texturing it with their Mediterranean passion until its soul sings at you whether you like it or not.

How could you not love it?

28 August, 2006

95. It's official - black is back

It used to be common for Venetian gondolas to have an enclosed and sometimes elaborately decorated wooden cabin called a 'felze', which gave the passengers inside some privacy, both from the gondolier standing behind them and from the outside world. There are still a few gondolas that have this feature and they are mostly used for weddings or other ceremonial occasions, but because they restrict the view of the passenger looking out, they are not generally much use for tourist rides.

In July this year, the city's gondola association announced that those gondolas which carried a 'felze' would be allowed to keep it, but all of the other 400 or so gondolas would be required to strip from their boats all the elaborate decorations which have become so common recently.

Pitching joyrides to tourists, especially out of peak season, is a very competitive business and more and more decorative features have been added by enterprising gondoliers to make their boat look that little bit more attractive to ride in than the one parked next to it. But no more.

Today's picture is now an interesting historic record because by the time you read this, the fancy upholstery on these and all the other gondolas may well have been taken off for good. In future there will be no more plush upholstery edging, no gilded ornaments, no fancy chains and pompoms, no embroidered cushions. The upholstery must now be plain leather only, and the allowed choice of colour for the interior will be black, dark blue, or purple. No scarlet, or burgundy, or turquoise, and everything else on the boat must be back to the basic black as decreed in the Sumptuary Law of 1562.

It's nice to know that there are some places in the world where tradition can prevail over commercial pressure.

27 August, 2006

94. How clever is this?

The flatter and quite heavily stylised type of mosaic work that covers so much of the interior of St Mark's cathedral - similar to the picture of St Mark in his coffin in my post a couple of days ago (scroll down to #92) - is filled with narrative and symbolic meaning. It developed into a medium of great power, that could communicate its message even to an otherwise completely illiterate audience - a bit like comics without speech balloons. This was the very effective way that mosaic was used here up until the late 14th century or so.

When the early Renaissance artists began to understand how to use perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional space, visual art became much more concerned with the appearance of the subject and the fidelity of the illusion, and less with the image's symbolic meaning or narrative function. So the later mosaics on both the inside and the outside of the cathedral are much more realistic representations of figures and other objects in space, but in other ways less interesting than the earlier works they replaced.

Ruskin (who I know I quote quite often but that is because he is such a quotable curmudgeon) greatly admired the Byzantine-style mosaic work. He thought the later mosaics were better than whitewash - but only just.

I can understand his point of view, particularly when you look at some of the syrupy schmaltzy images produced in the later Baroque and Rococo periods, with angels and cherubs that have now become such a cliche that they would look more at home on cheap greetings cards than in one of the world's greatest cathedrals.

On the other hand, just look at this example of Renaissance mosaic work from inside St. Mark's cathedral museum for a moment. Whatever the subject matter of the whole piece, aren't these a simply awesome pair of mosaic knees?

These are not just Byzantine outlines of limbs, these are totally convincing three-dimensional legs, legs sculpted and modelled with bones in them, with strong muscles and tendons flexed and holding upright the superior trunk and head of this man with the large sword at his waist. Whoever the artist was, he wasn't guessing at what legs looked like, he had looked hard at them. He knew how they worked and why, and he was able to arrange tiny little chunks of glazed tile in just the right way to convince you that they are flesh and blood.

Imagine the work that went into preparing the materials before he could even start to make this picture. There are at least fifteen, maybe even more shades and tints of this exact fleshtone in a precise gradation of density from darkest to lightest. Heaven knows how many glaze mixings and firings it took to get the colours of the tiles just right. Then they would have to be cut up into tiny pieces of an almost uniform size. Then with tweezers, the artist would have to select each piece and place it just exactly so in a bed of mortar.

I don't know who the artist was, but I have to admire his extraordinary skill with this fiendishly difficult medium.

26 August, 2006

93. A shop by any other name...

When I first moved from chilly temperate London, England (my old home town) to sultry sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia (my new home town), the houses all looked vaguely wrong. It wasn't the style of them, which was admittedly very different, it was a sense that they weren't real houses. Eventually it dawned on me. None of the homes in Brisbane have chimneys! You don't need fireplaces in tropical houses, so you don't need a chimney, and if all the houses you have ever seen before had chimneys sticking out of the roof, a house without a chimney looks somehow incomplete or unfinished.

It took me a while to nail that same vague 'something's-not-right' feeling that I had about most of Venice's thousands of little shops, like this one. No, it has nothing to do with their chimneys – the odd thing that was bothering me was that there are no signs on them. In my home town EVERY shop has a sign over the door or window which shouts its name out to the world, and very often tells you what sort of shop it is at the same time – "Stafford City Newsagency", or the "James Street Fresh Fish Co." or "Christiaane – Beautiful bathrooms". Here, the fact that it has a window and a door with credit card symbols on it tells you that it is a shop. What's in the window is what the shop sells. What more do you need to know?

It has a certain logic to it. A prominent shop sign will not only uglify the whole street, there isn't much point to it in a place like Venice. If you are near the shop, then you can see that it's there and what it sells. A sign won't attract shoppers to it from a long way off because, in the narrow short streets of Venice, if you aren't close to it then you won't be able to see it or its sign. And why would you bother trying to build brand recognition to distinguish your shop from all your competitors, when close to zero percent of your business is repeat business? Most of the people who buy things in Venice's shops will be in the city an average of less than three days, and then they will leave and never come back to Venice, let alone this particular shop.

"Do you know where we could get some boots mended?" we asked in a shop where we had just bought some new shoes. "Sure, you go to Mancini's" was the reply. Following the helpful directions we found ourselves at a no-name shop that appeared to sell dog food and pet supplies. Obviously not Mancini the boot repairer. We wandered the streets and kept coming back to the same place. "Is this Mancini's?" we eventually asked. "Of course," was the reply with a shrug. But it wasn't Mancini's, because the name on the business card inside the shop had some completely different name. "Ah" explained the man on the counter when I challenged him, "the boot repairing business in the room out the back used to be owned by someone called Mancini".

There's nothing quite as useful as a bit of local knowledge. And if they put names on the shops, it would probably just confuse the locals.

25 August, 2006

92. Hide and seek

This mosaic from the 13th century is unique for several reasons. It is in one of the nine lunettes (semicircular recesses) in the façade of St Mark's cathedral, but it is the only early exterior mosaic to survive, all the others having been replaced by more modern works during various renovations up until the 18th century. It is also the earliest representation we have of St. Mark's cathedral itself, which gives us a good idea what the front of the basilica would have looked like around 1250 AD.

We can see that all of the lunettes apart from the huge Christ over the doorway are shown to be at that time filled with just decorative designs, whereas now they are all figurative narrative scenes. We can also see that the front of the cathedral was no longer bare brick, which it was in the late 11th century when it was first built. A mere hundred years later it was already richly decorated with many different kinds of coloured stone.

This picture has the stylized feel of an Orthodox church icon, because when it was made it was still early enough to have been influenced by the then dominant Byzantine imagery and the Eastern church's craft skills. It is even possible that it was carried out by imported Byzantine craftsmen, as were so many of the mosaics in the interior of St.Mark's. It is dated after the beginning of the 13th century, because it shows the stolen horses of Constantinople, the Quadriga, already in place above the mighty image of Christ Pantocrator dominating the entrance to the church. This powerful figure has unfortunately since been replaced with a much less inspiring baroque group of figures showing Christ holding his cross at the centre with cherubs in clouds sprinkled all around him.

On the shoulders of the two senior clerics in the middle is a coffin containing St. Mark's body, shown entering the church. This is a big lump of artistic license, firstly because the corpse looks remarkably healthy given that by the time it arrived in Venice it must have been decomposing for about 750 years, and secondly, because it was not this church that St. Mark was carried into and buried, it was the first church built on this spot in the 9th century.

That church burned down in 976 AD, leaving the Doge, the Patriarch, the bishops and the clergy with a problem, because no trace remained in the charred rubble of exactly where St Mark had been interred. Only three people knew the exact location and they were now all dead. This present church was built on the same spot to replace it, and at its consecration, a High Mass was held to pray for the recovery of the relics. Miraculously, during the service, some supporting masonry crumbled away and a human arm protruded from the hole, an arm immediately recognized as belonging to the Evangelist. Amid great jubilation, the now 900 year old corpse was pulled out of its hiding place and reburied in the new cathedral.

I know what you're thinking, but no, that wasn’t the synopsis of an episode of Fawlty Towers, it's supposed to be what actually happened. Really.

24 August, 2006

91. A surfeit of saints

The winged lion of St. Mark is on one of the two granite pillars. On top of the other one is the original, and largely forgotten, patron saint of Venice.

St. Theodore Tyro, also known as St.Theodore of Amasea, was an early Christian martyr. A young soldier in the Roman army, he was burned at the stake in 306AD for refusing to renounce his Christianity (and possibly also for burning down a pagan temple). For reasons hard to fathom, one of the symbols associated with St. Theodore is the crocodile, and this rather modern looking statue depicts him standing with a curiously odd version of that animal, most likely carved by someone who had never seen a crocodile.

St. Theodore is venerated in the Eastern Church and became the patron saint of Venice very early in the existence of the city, when it was still a vassal state of Byzantium, but he is not what you would call a major league saint. As Venice's power and its ambitions grew, it was in danger of being ignored by Rome as a religious centre of influence because it had no ecclesiastical clout compared to the longer established Christian centres in places like Antioch and Alexandria.

We will never know whether it was the result of a cunning plan devised by Doge Participazio, or just a quick-witted entrepreneurial action, but in 828 AD, two Venetian merchants managed to persuade the Christian church in Alexandria to let them smuggle the body of St. Mark the Evangelist out of the city – "just for his own protection, you understand". St. Mark had been the Bishop of Alexandria and had died there, but the city was then under Saracen control, and there must have been some genuine concern about the safety of this most sacred Christian relic. The colourful story goes that the smell of the decomposing corpse as it was carted to the waiting ship aroused the suspicions of the Saracen guards, but the merchants hid the cadaver under a pile of pork meat, which the Islamic soldiers were unable to go near, let alone touch.

The church in Alexandria never had any chance of getting their grisly relic back. Owning the entire body of one of the Gospel-writing Evangelists gave the city of Venice the Apostolic patronage and prestige it needed, immediately lifting it to a holiness ranking second only to Rome itself.

Poor old St. Theodore never got another look in, even though he still presides over the city from one of the two pillars at the city's ceremonial entrance. Strangely, that same area of the Piazetta was also, up until the 19th century, the chosen site for state executions, and many Venetians are still too superstitious to ever walk between these two great columns.

23 August, 2006

90. A most enduring symbol

This is the same lion we met yesterday, and he has sat on his tall granite perch for about 800 years – apart from a quick trip to the British Museum for some restoration work in 1990.

In that time he has watched Venice emerge from under Byzantium's long shadow to become in her turn the most powerful maritime nation in the world; he has watched fleets of warships setting their ambitious sails as they row out of the lagoon towards Venice's enemies and former friends; watched kings and emperors and popes arrive and leave at the quayside below; observed Venetian society wax and grow rich, then wane and degenerate; he saw her conquered by Napoleon and eventually absorbed into the nation of Italy; he has seen candlelight replaced by gaslight replaced by electric lighting; seen most of the gondolas replaced by vaporetti; and now he patiently poses for the millions of gawking tourist cameras that flow through this city like a tidal wave every year.

He is synonymous with the city. The winged lion of St. Mark in all its forms IS Venice. He represents the power and confidence and protection given to all Venetians by the relics of their patron saint, the human remains of St. Mark the Evangelist himself, that supposedly rest in the centre of the nearby great basilica, from where this picture was taken.

Symbols are powerful things, they can unite and focus a people, they can inspire awe or fear, loyalty or rebellion. After the American tanks first rolled into Baghdad during the most recent of Iraq wars, people immediately gathered round the largest statue of Saddam Hussein and tore it down, destroying the symbol of their former oppression.

Was there ever political disagreement in Venice? Public dissent? Even treasonous acts against the state? Of course, such things are unavoidable in any authoritarian regime. But it is a wonderful tribute to the wisdom of the checks and balances built into the Venetian system of government, and to its essential humanity, that at no time in the city's long and chequered history was this most visible of symbols ever threatened by an angry mob. Not only was it never toppled, it was never even seriously attacked.

This symbol of the state has sat on his column for 800 years because the citizens of Venice allowed him to remain there.

22 August, 2006

89. The 'Lion' of St. Mark

The Gospel according to St. Mark describes John the Baptist preaching "like a lion roaring". Perhaps because of this, the evangelistic symbol for St Mark is a lion. All of the four gospel authors have a symbolic creature associated with them – Matthew's is a man, symbolizing the human nature of Christ; Luke has a bull or calf, symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ; John's symbol is an eagle, for the omnipotent all-seeing eye of God. Mark's lion symbolizes Christ as king.

All four of these creatures are traditionally depicted with wings, which creates some confusion in many people's minds about whether Matthew's is supposed to be a man or an angel, but it does explain why there are winged lions all over St. Mark's Venice in the form of sculptures and reliefs and paintings and mosaics – even doorknobs and restaurant menus.

This 3-ton bronze sculpture perched atop a massive granite column in the Piazetta is the most important and most famous of all the winged lion representations in the city, yet it is one of the strangest. Although it depicts a suitably strong and fierce animal, and although its body is sort of leonine, it would be hard to recognize its head in any other context as being any sort of cat at all, let alone Leo, the king of the jungle.

This is not surprising when you realize that the head and body of this animal are not of a lion at all but of some sort of completely mythical beast. Art historians usually describe this work as being a Chinese or Persian 'chimera', but nobody knows for sure where or when it was made. Perhaps it was captured during the sacking of Constantinople, perhaps some Venetian traders acquired it, but there is no record of how it came to be in Venice.

The wings are also not original. They were probably made in Venice, and then tacked on to this bizarre creature's back to create a 'winged lion', shown with his paws on an open copy of St. Mark's gospel.

This huge granite column - one of a pair - was definitely 'souvenired' from Constantinople in 1204 during the disastrous Fourth Crusade, and this odd but very heavy hybrid sculpture was hoisted to the top of it sometime later, probably early in the 13th century – no mean feat in itself when you think about it.