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Dr Lisa Beaven - Venice During the Renaissance

Lis Beaven

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Matt Smith
Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast fair listener.  I would be your host Matt Smith and I invite you to come on a journey with me, a journey through time to the far-off distant land of Italy, unless of course you are listening in Italy, in which case it’s actually quite near to you.  Our guide today is Dr Lisa Beaven, an art historian from La Trobe University and we will be visiting Venice during the Renaissance, a city which will forever be known as a floating palace.
Lisa Beaven
What we have, really unusually, is a city built on the water, uniquely.  That’s what makes it so singular.  And throughout the Middle Ages, everyone’s always talking about it as a world apart, as something apart, as something different from everything else.  And in fact Petrarch calls it the mundus alter, or another world, because it seems almost fantastical, particularly if you imagine now you approach it across a modern causeway but they would have always approached it from the water.  And there you would have seen, literally, a city shimmering, just sitting on the water, seemingly impossibly.  So the one thing about Venice you can’t understand is, how is that possible?  That it’s there at all.  And secondly, I think what’s important is because it’s inside a lagoon, it’s protected.  Unusually for an Italian city, it doesn’t have its origin in ancient Rome.  In fact, it was founded in the 6th and 7th centuries by Italians feeling from Lombard’s invasion of the north of Italy, and so they flee into the lagoon, and the wonderful thing about the lagoon, it actually provides them with a great deal of security and it’s strategically and militaristically really important, because (a) it’s subject to these sort of sea mists or fogs if you like, so many, many armies tried to find Venice to try to sack it or destroy it, and were always thwarted by the fact that the mist would come down and they couldn’t actually find it within the waters of the lagoon.  And I think secondly what’s important is that big ships couldn’t come into the lagoon because it was quite shallow, so you couldn’t actually drive your water right up to Venice and disgorge your army into the actual city.  So these factors actually protected it.  They started off, they actually fled into the lagoon and they started building on these tiny little islands, like sandbars really, building houses by plunging these large wooden beams into the mud of the lagoon and building houses and eventually palaces and so on.  Which is why – I don’t know if you’ve been to Venice, but you’ll find everybody gets lost in Venice, because the way in which you have to get around the city is not at all logical, according to our way of getting around, with roads and so on.  Instead, eventually, these little islands would make a bridge to the next little island but it might be completely counter-intuitive in terms of how you’d actually get there.  So you’d end up walking a lot around Venice, down these little cul-de-sacs and getting lost and coming back and retracing your steps and going over the bridge.  So the first thing about it is its geography.  I think that’s really important.  And secondly, its position.  If you look at its position within the wider Italian framework, and it sounds like a cliché but I think it’s true, it’s literally positioned between East and West.  Already by the early medieval period, it’s trading all around the Mediterranean, with Istanbul, what was then Constantinople, but also with the West, with Spain and France.  It was incredibly cosmopolitan, becomes very, very rich quite quickly.  You have to imagine Venice like a huge emporium.  It’s like an enormous trading centre.  One visitor said, merchandise flows like water through the fountain.  So in other words, everyone’s coming into Venice selling something, gathering something, taking it away.  It’s this kind of major hub of the Mediterranean.  The Venetians were also quite good at shoring up their military positions in relation to all of this, so for example Venice used to be protected by St Theodore and then in the 9th century, some Venetian sailors steal the relics of St Mark from Alexandria and they take it back to Venice, and it’s from that moment on that the evangelist St Mark becomes the patron saint of Venice.  And that’s St Mark’s is called that today.  But this is interesting because the Venetians don’t like the idea that perhaps these relics have been stolen, so they come up with this founding legend which is about St Mark having a prophecy before he died, saying that his relics would end up in Venice.  And they also create a founding legend about their settlement, by saying that Venice was actually founded by the Trojans fleeing from Troy, who landed in one of these little islands near Venice and set up the community, or the colony.  So they’re very good at creating that, weaving a foundation that’s around the stories of Venice.  But what actually happens in the 1200s is the Venetians persuade the fourth crusade, who were French mostly, to sack Constantinople, which of course is a Christian city.  It makes no sense that the crusaders would go there and sack that city, but they were actually the rivals of Venice for that Mediterranean trade, and so the wily Venetians persuade them to sack Constantinople.  They bring back enormous amounts of booty and wealth back to Venice and we have all these stories of visitors going there in the 1400s and 1500s, saying there were more than 200 palaces fit to accommodate a king in Venice.  This enormous degree of wealth and luxury goods just pouring into Venice.  The Venetians at this point also land on what they call the terra firma, which is the Italian mainland, almost an empire.  They’ve spread out.  Not just a mercantile empire but also on land.  They have colonies that are subject to them, like other city states.
Matt Smith
OK, so it sounds like there was a lot wealth, a lot of power, a lot of influence – how dominant was Venice during the Renaissance?  Did it rival Rome?
Lisa Beaven
Absolutely.  Venice in the medieval period, coming up to the Renaissance, was hugely powerful in the Mediterranean.  Hugely powerful.  And young Venetians were not landed aristocrats, like other people from other parts of Europe, but they were mercantile aristocrats.   They would be sent off at a young age to learn the trade all around the Mediterranean, they spoke many different languages, they were very, very powerful, the Venetians.  But what’s happening is other forces are at play during that period, in particular the Ottoman Empire is on the rise.  1453 the Ottoman Empire overruns Constantinople.  Many, many refugees come to Venice and there’s again a craze for all things byzantine in Venice, which also happens after the sack of Constantinople in the fourth crusade.  So, over a period of two, three hundred years, Venice is losing its power in the Mediterranean to the Ottoman Empire.  Prior to that they had outposts all over the Mediterranean.  They traded out of all these different places.  One by one they lose these as the 1500s goes on into the 1600s.  By the time you get to the end of the 1600s Venice has lost a lot of its power and influence.  It’s lost most of its land.  It’s no longer a force to play in European affairs to the same degree.  In fact, even in the 1500s Venice is up against some difficult problems.  It basically gets too powerful, too wealthy, too successful and everyone gangs up on it.  In fact the Pope, the French king, various others actually attack Venice and it loses a lot of its lands in the very early 1500s.  It does slowly regain them but it’s already seen to be a threat, if you like.  But the Venetians are very sure of their own superiority so they’re not worried about being rivals of what’s happening in Florence.
Matt Smith
So with all of this trade that’s going on and the refugees coming through there from Constantinople, how unique and how much did this influence the culture around Venice?
Lisa Beaven
I think it’s influenced it quite a lot because it’s reinforcing what’s happened earlier.  Because we had this crusade in the 13th century that sacks Constantinople, a lot of icons are brought back to Venice at that point.  So a craze for byzantine arts grips the whole peninsula in the 13th century.  A lot of byzantine artists actually do take the idea of pictorial narrative traditions, resurrect them in a sense, because Italy’s gone through some quite tough times prior to that. It’s had a lot of armies crossing its soil, it’s lost some of those pictorial traditions which are re-introduced from Constantinople.  So I think that’s really important, that are the later refugees are both very important for Venice.  But I think there’s another reason why oil paint becomes important then.  It’s also a practical one as you have the popular method of painting in the Renaissance is the fresco technique, which is painting directly with the pigment on to wet, fresh plaster that then sets, so it’s a very permanent kind of painting technique.  Well, that kind of technique you can’t really use in Venice because it’s so damp, that kind of thing would peel off the walls.
Matt Smith
So tell me about the political structure.
Lisa Beaven
Well, it’s interesting because you had the signore ruling parts of Italy with absolute rule.  Venice where it’s incredibly hard to have the stable form of what they call republican rule over a long period of time in which no individual was allowed to become dominant.  And to do this a certain proportion of the population is allowed to vote and they vote about 2,000 people on to these governing councils.  At the top of all these councils is the elected representative of the Venetian republic, who’s the doge.  Now he’s not a really effective ruler as we would understand it.  Instead, he’s a figurehead basically.  He lives in great luxury and pomp and style and he’s always there in terms of rituals and festivals and so on that go on in Venice, but he only has a fixed term in which he’s allowed to be doge and any doge who tries to actually then enforce some other kind of rule, like hand on their power to their son, is very quickly dispatched in Venice.  And that rule essentially continues until Napoleon comes and invades Italy and changes that.  Now the problem with that of course, is that it’s a city in which you get lots and lots of emigrants – they can be considered citizens of Venice if they pay taxes long enough.  The Libro d’Oro really ensures that no other families can be added to that book, which is a slight problem.  On the other hand, in many ways the social structures in Venice were remarkably mobile.  Anyone can invest in those trading voyages.  Women can invest in trading voyages, or priests, in which case you could change your social status quite quickly.  So even though it sounds rather drastic that you have the Libro d’Oro and no one else can be added to it, in fact, more fluidity between classes actually took place.
Matt Smith
OK, so you’ve got lots of culture, you’ve got a strong city.  What came out of the Renaissance in Venice?  What can you point to now that is the product of Venice in that time?
Lisa Beaven
An important thing that came out of Venice, which from our point of view seems strange now, is actually the invention of landscape painting.  Now why would a place that doesn’t have any landscape, invent landscape painting?
Matt Smith
Just a lot of blue.
Lisa Beaven
A lot of blue, yes.  In reality, it shows in many ways that paintings actually alter reality, they don’t necessarily reflect it.  Because they don’t have landscape, perhaps they invent the pastoral landscape tradition.  So what that really means is this idea of looking back at classical texts by Virgil, where you have the scene set in Arcadia with shepherds piping and reading poetry, and there’s a sad and yet idyllic quality about the landscape.  This is a form of sort of visual poetry is what many of these painters like Giorgione were actually concentrating on, and The Tempest which is one of the most famous paintings in the world, was actually painted for a private patron, so he also introduces this idea of smaller paintings that are secular, for private patrons, who are coming out of that humanist tradition.  So you are getting a shift from church patronage in the Renaissance period, to private patronage.
Matt Smith
How did the Renaissance come to a close in Venice?  Was it a triumphant Renaissance, or was there a downfall?
Lisa Beaven
Well, Venice as a trading city is always subject to epidemics, and they have epidemics of the plague in 1503 and 1508, and they kill off large parts of the population.  Obviously if you’ve got ships coming in all the time, you’re more vulnerable to that kind of thing.
Matt Smith
And you’ve got moisture, yeah.
Lisa Beaven
And so that is actually a good thing though, because it’s often in times of trouble that you decide to build enormous churches and you pray to your plague saints, certain saints like St Roch and St Sebastian are regarded as protecting you from the plague.  So you could argue the golden age of Venice is not actually a politically advantageous time.  That in many ways they had been wealthier before, but in terms of art, it’s really in those 1500s that we get this extraordinary flowering.  We start with all these family dynasties of painters in Venice.  We start with Jacapo Bellini and the Vivarini family but of course ultimately Giorgione dies young, Sebastiano del Piombo, another famous artist goes to Rome, leaving Titian and he becomes the painter that is most associated with the Venetian tradition.  And really, one of the most famous painters of that period.
Matt Smith
So tell me about the people that were living in Venice at the time.  What sort of people were they, and who were some of the historical figures that might be known?
Lisa Beaven
There are of course some fabulous characters from that time.  Actually quite famous courtesans, because the other thing about Venice is it’s famous for sex.  It becomes the place where all these young rich Englishmen go because of the courtesans, and some of them in the Renaissance period were really interesting because they’re poets, they’re not just prostitutes, they’re actually something much more like a geisha girl, I suppose where they have literary skills and they publish books and they can discourse intelligently about all sorts of different subjects.  So many of them were actually quite fascinating.  And some of them obviously are also painted by the painters as well.
Matt Smith
OK, so it was a bit of a tourism industry there then …
Lisa Beaven
It’s always been a tourism industry, Venice, because it’s like no other place in the world.  The terrible thing about Venice now is that there is no cap put on the number of visitors.  It’s long ago exceeded the number of people that any city can sustain in terms of the sort of tipping point, where you have a balance between locals and tourists.  That has gone so what we are seeing is the Venetian population steadily declining as they lose all their normal shops and they get replaced by gift shops and tourist shops and glass shops.  They’re all moving out of Venice so what we’re getting is something like a ghost town being created for these huge mass movements of tourists in and out, seasonally, in Venice and I think it’s actually terrible, because that could be contained and controlled in many ways, but the Venetian government has, over and over again, shown that they’re not prepared to do that.
Matt Smith
That was Dr Lisa Beaven, from the La Trobe University History Program, and that’s all the time we have for the La Trobe University podcast.  If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email atpodcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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