Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 22, 2011
Iain Fenlon The Ceremonial City: History, Memory and Myth in Renaissance Venice New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 464 pp.; 158 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (97803001119374)

The Battle of Lepanto, fought off the coast of Greece on October 7, 1571, between Christians and Turks, with Venice as a major participant, is one of the defining moments of Venetian history. Officially proclaimed a victory by Venice, with a huge panoply of celebratory apparatus, the battle—as later events made clear (a humiliating peace treaty with the Turks followed almost immediately)—was the turning point in the dethroning of Venice as a dominant power on the Italian peninsula and in the Mediterranean. Iain Fenlon, a noted musicologist, has made a specialty of research on the battle—the victory that never was—and the ways in which it was celebrated. Tottering on the edge of political and economic collapse, Venice needed this “victory,” and as Fenlon shows, made the most of it.

The book has three sections. Part 1, “The Ceremonial City,” covers the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, providing a pre-history for the sixteenth century taken up in parts 2 and 3. Already in the thirteenth century, Venice had embarked on its mission of managing its image in ways that would give the city a special aura. The popular legend of the praedestinatio belongs to this period, a legend that has Christ assuring Mark, Venice’s future patron, in a prophetic dream that he and the city will grow great together. The phrase with which Mark is addressed in this dream, “Pax tibi Marce, Evangelista meus,” would be carried by the Lion of Saint Mark into subject territories in the course of the fifteenth century as Venice amassed extensive land holdings. Dominant in Mediterranean trade, enriched by lands of the terraferma, Venice emerged as a major player in the power politics of the Italian peninsula. Otto Demus, who focused on Mark and the church of San Marco in his magisterial Church of San Marco of 1960 (Otto Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice: History, Architecture, Sculpture, Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Library, 1960), provides the frame for the discussion, but Fenlon scrupulously knits subsequent research into the picture. While this narrative is somewhat skewed by the intermingling of images from a later period, it represents an intelligent culling and assembling of information. What is not clear on first reading, however, is that this section is not part of the argument of the book; it is a preamble to the real meat of the study.

Fenlon comes into his own in part 2, “A Disquieting Decade,” when he brings forward his contribution regarding the escalation of Venice’s ceremonial stance as her political importance faded—pomp and circumstance now substituting for real power. By the early sixteenth century, the expanding, ferocious power that had once been Venice was on a downward spiral. In the grim summer of 1509, Venice lost, in the Battle of Agnadello, almost her entire terraferma holdings; three weeks later she was forced to abandon Padua. And although she regained some of these territories, she never fully recovered. Portuguese intrusions into the spice trade undercut her hegemony in the Mediterranean market. A combination of factors, including large-scale piracy, caused a decline in Venice’s shipping industry. The Arsenale, once the envy of Europe, fell into disrepair and Venice was forced to buy ships from abroad. The militant expansion of the papacy, combined with the rise and consolidation of the monarchies of France and the Habsburgs, changed the power map of Europe. Venice was no longer able to hold out as an independent Republic.

The response of an embattled Venice was to orchestrate a new level of propagandizing. Under Doge Andrea Gritti (1523–1538), the city began to sell itself as the ideal republic. Gasparo Contarini’s De magistratibus et republica Venetorum, written in the mid-1520s, lays out a glorified vision of the Serrenissima, a city of peace and concord, of wise laws and enlightened rulers. It is this vision of Venice—too good to be true—that later scholars would characterize as “the myth of Venice,” an ideal state born and continuing to flourish under divine providence. The detailing of “il mito di una Venezia magnanima” is the work of Gina Fasoli in a classic article of 1958 (Gina Fasoli, “Nascita di un mito,” in Studi storici in onore di Gioacchino Volpe, vol. 1, Florence: Sansoni, 1958, 445–79) in which she examined Venice’s impressive skills for self celebration: “magnanima, eroica, generosa, liberale, possente.” Embraced with enthusiasm in modern scholarship, the term has been applied rather indiscriminately to a multitude of situations. Fenlon’s book is no exception. The term winds its way through all 365 pages, creating a false unity and masking the real nature of his contribution. For what Fenlon’s book allows readers to see is that in response to the changed political reality of the sixteenth century a new page has been turned. Stripped of its political power, the Serenissima can, in the realm of display and spectacle, still function as a major player on the European scene. The vision of Venice as the perfect Republic, destined for success, favored in its institutions, distinguished by harmony within its ruling class—the vision termed the myth of Venice—is the product of a Venice in decline, a defensive strategy designed to hold back the tidewater of collapse. In the years immediately before and after the Battle of Lepanto, Venice becomes the “Ceremonial City,” splendid in its outer trappings, hollow at its core.

The first two chapters of part 2 treat the events leading up to Lepanto: confrontations with the Turks; the 1571 establishing of the Holy League uniting the Spanish, the Papacy, and Venice against the Turks; and finally the battle itself. Two auxiliary chapters adumbrate the move to ceremonial grandeur in the wake of the battle. For the 1574 visit of Henry III, King of France, the Signoria worked out a program of all-out display. Monumental architecture was incorporated into the pageant. Two great temporary structures in the form of triumphal arches, attributed to Palladio, were constructed on the banks of the Lido, bringing home the message of Venice as the new Rome. Venetian sumptuary laws were suspended for the period of Henry’s stay. The Sala del Maggior Consiglio was opened up for a grand ball, and the celebrated beauties of Venice, dressed in white and adorned with jewels, were in attendance.

In the closing chapter of this section, Venice’s response to the plague of 1575–77 brilliantly illustrates its transformative responses in the face of reverses. Three days of state processions were given dramatic point by the singing of double-choir litanies, the newly invented coro spezzato of the San Marco choir masters. Relics were strategically employed. The case of the Nicopeia is particularly instructive: a Virgin icon of dubious provenance in the Sacristy of the Treasury of San Marco was elevated to prominence as a major relic, carried in procession under a white baldacchino surrounded by lighted candles and renamed the Madonna Nicopeia—the Virgin as bringer of Victory. Later installed on one of the major altars of San Marco, the Nicopeia became Venice’s most celebrated Virgin icon. The capping event was the Senate decree authorizing the construction of a new church dedicated to Christ the Savior, Palladio’s Church of the Redentore. The annual procession to the church, the Feast of the Redentore, is still one of Venice’s most important festivals.

Part 3 functions as a grab-bag, providing information that completes the picture presented in part 2, but in a frustratingly disorganized fashion. Fenlon himself acknowledges in the introduction that the book began as an investigation into “cultural reactions” to the Battle of Lepanto that expanded “some number of years later” into a wider range of contextual inquiry. The result, he tells readers, is “three distinct . . . sections, each of which adopts a different approach” (ix). Or to put it in other words, it is left to the reader to provide the glue that holds it all together.

But this section, despite problems, is the most important and original of the book, the product of Fenlon’s assiduous combing of archives and his impressive facility for calling forth illuminating details. Readers are able to see the city literally transforming itself, existing monuments newly elaborated into grand ceremonial structures. The Arsenale gateway, erected under Doge Francesco Foscari during the city’s fifteenth-century expansion, becomes a triumphant Battle of Lepanto gateway crowned by Santa Giustina, the saint on whose feast day the battle had taken place. In the late sixteenth century, an Annunciation group—emphasizing Venice’s connection with sacred history—was prominently placed on the supporting piers of the Ponte del Rialto. Jacopo Sansovino’s colossal statues of Mars and Neptune, signifying dominion over land and sea, were placed in 1567 at the top of the major staircase leading into the Palazzo Ducale, now to be known as the Scala dei Giganti.

This section features an excellent discussion of how print media played a role in the new celebratory apparatus by publicizing events; single-sheet broadsides, engravings, and pamphlets allowed Venetians of all classes to participate in ceremonial occasions. Print peddlers roamed the gathering places of the city, hawking the latest news under the arcades at Piazza San Marco. The activity of Francesco Sansovino, the indefatigable chronicler of Venice’s singularity, when placed within this frame, takes on a new dimension. His Venetia città nobilissima of 1581 emerges as not only an indispensible source of historical information but also as a marker of the new celebratory approach to the city’s history, honoring the Serenissima as a work of art brought to completion.

As Ellen Rosand and Fenlon have both shown, during the course of the sixteenth century music began to function as part of the political and cultural reality of the city, recognized by the state as an essential part of Venice’s image (e.g., Ellen Rosand, “Music in the Myth of Venice,” Renaissance Quarterly 30 (1977): 511–37; and the relevant essays collected in: Iain Fenlon, Music and Culture in Late Renaissance Italy, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Attention was lavished on the development of the choir of San Marco, whose role in solenni feste escalated. Santa Giustina’s feast day became a major feast in the Venetian calendar, celebrated with an andata in which the choir of San Marco walked in procession while singing double-choir litanies and psalms. Major composers of the city and the terraferma wrote pieces in honor of the victory at Lepanto, and the newly popular genre of plays with music, such as Celio Magno’s Trionfo di Christo (1571), explicitly celebrated the victory as Christ’s achievement.

One of the most impressive accomplishments of the period was the creation of a new emblem for the city: Venetia—featured in many of the book’s illustrations—combined the lush resonance of a classical deity with the sobriety of a city personification. Elements of this refulgent, sixteenth-century Venetia were prepared for, as David Rosand has shown (David Rosand, Myths of Venice: The Figuration of a State, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), by multi-layered depictions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. But now Venetia embodies everything that is unique to Venice as the myth has it—peace, prosperity, justice, and abundance. In monumental form, Venetia dominates the late sixteenth-century paintings of the newly decorated Palazzo Ducale. On a less grand scale, she appears in manuscripts, on coins, and throughout the city in public and private fresco cycles. The Lion of Saint Mark, aggressively striding from water onto land, had served an earlier period as the dominant, emblematic image of Venice. Now the Lion of Saint Mark, domesticated, kneels meekly at Venetia’s feet.

There are some areas that this reader would have liked to have seen developed further. The volume is sumptuously illustrated in the tradition of what one has come to expect from a Yale art history publication. But those wondrous machines of late sixteenth-century painting (sculpture is more summarily treated), glowing in good color details, cry out for greater attention. The fire that destroyed the painting cycles of both the Grand Council Chamber and the Sala dello Scrutinio opened the way to a new level of pictorial monumentality. Venice’s proud counter to the reversal in its fortunes is nowhere better expressed than in the stunning, over-the-top language of glorification devised by Veronese and Tintoretto for these spaces in the years around 1580. The scale and architectural backgrounds of contemporary Roman history painting are now made part of the Venetian tradition, overlaid with that particular Venetian skill in transmitting light, color, and texture. Veronese’s fundamental role in this development is made clear in the large pen-and-ink drawing (Chatsworth Collection of the Duke of Devonshire) of ca. 1570–71 showing the Pope and Doge, amid a cast of thousands, in earnest colloquy, a drawing almost certainly intended as a modello for a tribute to the formation of the Holy League. It is entirely fitting that the drawing serves as end papers for Fenlon’s volume. Even more fitting would have been a full discussion in the text.

Scholars will mine Fenlon’s study, especially part 3, for its wealth of detail, its astonishingly complete bibliographical references, and for the many roads opened up for further research. The situation for the casual reader is another issue entirely—a reader who will have to work hard to find the argument at the heart of the study.

Debra Pincus
Independent Scholar