Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2001
Debra Pincus The Tombs of the Doges of Venice Cambridge University Press, 1999. 276 pp.; 126 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0521593549)

Amidst the massive tombs of later doges, often reaching the entire height of a church from floor to vaulting, the rather more modest memorials to 13th- and 14th-century leaders of Venice may escape the notice of the general public, and indeed have largely escaped the attention of scholars. Debra Pincus amply demonstrates that they are, on the contrary, of considerable interest and importance. Most obviously, the early ducal tombs set the stage for the “grand, wall-filling tombs of the second half of the fifteenth century” (1), which expanded upon but did not greatly deviate from the themes introduced early on. More significantly, the early tombs tell us much about Venice in a crucial phase of the Republic’s development, not only about Venetian artistic sensibilities and spiritual preferences, but also about fundamental issues of “statecraft and of civic identity” (12).

If the ducal tomb was a “carrier of meaning” (16), it proved capable of expressing a variety of meanings and shifting its meanings according to the needs of the moment. For example, the first extant tomb, that of Jacopo Tiepolo (d. 1249), was attached to the Dominican church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, underscoring the close spiritual and religious ties between state and the Order of Preachers. It was patterned after antique sarcophagi, and its carvings evoked both Byzantine and imperial imagery, suggesting a range of associations: Venice’s origins as Byzantine outpost (it was important to Venetians not to be thought of as Italian or Roman), its current emphasis on trade with the East, and, above all, its quasi-imperial authority.

As the Eastern connection faded in importance, Greek elements were largely replaced by early Christian motifs, establishing a strong link between doge (and, by extension, the state) and the city’s patron, St. Mark. In the later 13th century, as Venice reasserted itself after a series of reversals, ducal tombs and other sculptural programs (Pincus extensively treats other doge-related work in addition to sepulchres) emphasized the related theme of praedestinatio, the notion that Christ himself had chosen the site of Mark’s resting place and so had granted divine patronage to the city. The 14th century introduced image types drawn from Tuscany, Rome, and the surrounding Veneto, reflecting Venice’s growing engagement in Italian affairs, while never eliminating the Byzantine (e.g., the Dormition of the Virgin) as a mark of Venice’s distinct cultural heritage and ongoing idiosyncrasy.

The tomb of the chronicler, builder, and doge Andrea Dandolo (d. 1354) demonstrates the degree to which these sepulchres also mirrored dynamics within the state. The problem here was that Venetians were always ambivalent about the office of doge: on the one hand, he was given imperial trappings and (several tombs show this)sacral status; on the other hand, his actual powers were sharply delimited by the councils of an emergent nobility that preferred collegial government. In practice the tension between these two visions had not been great, because as Pincus notes in an earlier context, “the doge represent [ed] the body politic in his own person, absorbing and reflecting the energies of the state” (89). He could be given a grandiose monument because he was more of a symbol than the actual ruler was. Still, there was always the danger of a cult of personality. Accordingly, few tombs featured coats of arms, lest attention be drawn away from the collective leadership and toward the individual ruler. Dandolo, however, threatened to upset the delicate arrangement: he not only ordered that his tomb be placed in a prominent front chapel in St. Mark’s, near the high altar, but also specified a full effigy. This proved too close to personal exaltation for the tastes of the noble procuratori who managed this most holy setting: the tomb was executed, but was placed in a much less visible setting and no doge thereafter was buried in St. Mark’s, now made the sacred center for the Republic generally rather than the doge personally.

Iconography, politics (internal and external), and spirituality were thus thoroughly intertwined. It was, moreover, a highly complex mix, given Venetians’ location between East and West and their ability to draw upon an enormous array of theological, patristic, and visual resources. Pincus, fortunately, is fully up to the challenge of sorting it all out. She is well versed in the spiritual traditions of both Byzantium and the Latin world, and is able to link apparently innocuous images to specific cults. She has done a vast amount of reading in all aspects of the subject: the copious appendices and notes constitute a full gloss on the text, both explain technical details and point readers to additional bibliography. Her archival research is equally impressive; she is a sound Latinist. Finally, she has an excellent grasp of Venetian history, and is able to connect developments in tomb iconography with quite specific changes in Venice’s condition.

One must make a few quibbles to avoid the impression of fawning. A colleague thought the photographs less than ideal, though I found them perfectly serviceable. There is occasionally, in the midst of a generally lucid narrative, a tendency to move between the present and the past tenses, even when the events described took place three-quarters of a millennium ago. And perhaps, too much material was consigned to the footnotes. The reader is forced to flip constantly between the body of the book and its end section. But this is small criticism indeed, in comparison with the merits of the book. Pincus teases out a wealth of meaning from some apparently modest structures.