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Sacred City


Divine and Infernal

Venice was the gate of heaven. At a time of religious crisis, in the middle of the sixteenth century, a cleric wrote that Christ was about to return to Italy and “I believe Venice will be the door.” The ranks of the rulers and the judges of Venice were compared to the numbers and dominions of angels and archangels; it was the nature of the city to inspire its citizens with the aeterna beatitudo, quae in visione Dei consistit, the eternal happiness which lies in the vision of the godhead. This is the context for Tintoretto’s great vision of paradise in the ducal palace. It was proclaimed, if not believed, that the constitution and laws of the city had been “sent by God”; the success and expansion of the Venetian Empire were then seen as the working-out of divine providence in the world of time. The very survival of a city upon the waters was a miracle. The Venetians themselves referred to their home as “our holy earth” or as “the holy city.”

In 1581 the Venetian writer Francesco Sansovino declared that Venice was “revered by everyone as a sacred thing on earth to be worshipped, were this possible.” It was not permissible of course; it might have provoked comparison with the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf (one of the favourite subjects of Venetian painting). Yet it was not altogether a novel doctrine. In the ancient religion of Mesopotamia, for example, the city was considered to be the essence of the divine. It need hardly be added that such worship encourages despotism and authoritarianism on a very grand scale. That is why the identity of church and state in Venice was so powerful. It allowed the governors of Venice to maintain their distance from the jurisdiction of Rome and the Roman pontiff. The doge was the pope of Venice, and the senators his cardinals. On Palm Sunday the doge released white doves from the doorway of Saint Mark’s in commemoration of the Ark’s coming to rest after the Flood. It was an invocation of the city’s own rescue from the waves. But was it a religious, rather than a political, ritual? The distinction, in Venetian culture, did not apply.

It was an accident of geography, perhaps, that this was the city from which the pilgrims sailed to the Holy Land. The pilgrims came to Venice to purchase supplies and provisions for the long voyage, and slowly the city itself was seen to be an integral part of their holy journey. They participated in all the sacred rituals of the Venetian Church. They worshipped at the same oratories and chapels. They venerated the same icons. The shrine of Saint Mark attracted many thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of foreign visitors. The tomb smelled of spices, the Venetian trade. The intimate association between Venice and the East also helped to convey the image of the city as part of the Holy Land, an intimation or glimpse of the divine, worthy of pilgrimage in its own right.

The city was a sacred space containing many intimations of the spiritual world. There were innumerable images of the saints, as well as the Virgin, in its dark passageways. The candles or lamps in front of them created a luminous area, banishing vice and crime. There were more than five hundred street shrines, or capitelli; but their purpose was political as well as religious. They were a means of curbing disorder among the people. The Virgin would not look kindly down upon civic unrest. The archangel Michael guards the south-west corner of the ducal palace with his drawn sword. The landscape of the city is dominated by bell towers ringing out “Holy! Holy! Holy!” The churches of Venice, like the convents and monasteries, were all carefully sited. The church of S. Maria dei Miracoli, for example, is placed on the frontiers of the two northern districts of Cannaregio and Castello. One of the oldest churches in Venice, that of S. Giacomo, is situated at the very centre of the Rialto market. It was here that commercial contracts were signed. Machiavelli wrote that “we Italians are corrupt and irreligious beyond all others.” That was not true of the Venetians. They were corrupt and religious.

Where there is the divine, there is always the infernal. One cannot exist without the other. There were many folk stories of the devil walking confidently over the bridges and along the calli of the city. He was reported to have taunted the mason working on the Rialto bridge, for example, with the claim that no one could build so wide an arch of stone. He offered to perform the work in exchange for the soul of the first person who crossed the bridge. It turned out to be the mason’s infant son.

Venice was a sacred text to be read and meditated. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the city was first seen as a totality, to be carefully structured. It had survived, by the exercise of the divine will, and now had to be sculptured. The body of Saint Mark, supposedly preserved in the basilica, was the central point of the configuration between the ducal palace, the market and the Arsenal. This was the sacred geometry of Venetian power.

It is noticeable, in Venetian painting, that the miracles of the Scriptures often take place in a Venetian setting. For Tintoretto the events of the New Testament were seen as an aspect of familiar Venetian life. In a manual of devotion written for young Venetian girls, the Garden of Prayer, the author instructs his readers to “take a city that is well known to you … hold in your mind the principal places where the episodes of the Passion would have taken place.” So the agonies of Christ were to be pictured along the calliand within the campi of la Serenissima.

It was itself a city of miracles. No city in Europe, with the possible exception of Rome, has witnessed so many. Every parish had its own sacred events. The compiler of the Cronica Venetiarum, writing in the middle of the fourteenth century, describes miracles and portents in the same spirit of verisimilitude as more mundane events and actions. Miracles were announced with impressive frequency by the authorities of the city. It was another way of reaffirming its sacred destiny. An angel rescued a workman falling from the scaffolding around the basilica of Saint Mark’s. A holy virgin walked across the water of the Grand Canal. A slave was rescued from condign punishment in Saint Mark’s Square by Saint Mark himself. The same saint, together with his brothers in Christ Nicholas and George, exorcised demons threatening the city with flood. Miraculous events became particularly common in the 1480s, just after the end of the Turkish wars in which Venice lost its domination of the Mediterranean. In these miracles the Virgin became the agent of divine intervention, thus in theory restoring the status of Venice as “Queen of the Sea.”

Carpaccio painted “Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge” when a lunatic was healed by the presence of the relic. There was the miracle at S. Lio in the early years of the fifteenth century, when in the parish of that name a holy relic would not be associated with the funeral of a wicked man. It grew so heavy that it could not be carried over the threshold of the church. Giovanni Mansueti completed a painting of the event in 1494. It is still possible to recognise the site, and certain of the larger houses, in 2009. That is another Venetian miracle.

The sacred sites of Venice can be enumerated. The first of them, by common consent, must be the basilica. It is the umbilicus, the central point, the core. It is the place where the divine and human meet. In the beginning there had been another church on this site dedicated to Saint Theodore but, when the supposed body of Saint Mark arrived in the lagoons, everything changed. As soon as the relics arrived in 829, a church with a wooden roof or dome was raised on the model of the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. The church was largely destroyed by fire in 976, but was subsequently restored. The final reconstruction, vaulted and built in brick, assuming the shape of the basilica still before us, was undertaken in the second half of the eleventh century. The fact that it was based upon a model already five hundred years old was a material blessing. It emphasised the supposed antiquity of the Venetian religious tradition. The city had no true religious history of its own; so it borrowed or adapted what it saw. The undulating pavement of the basilica, for example, was not an accident or a mistake. It was deliberately modelled on the floor of the church of S. Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna, built in the fifth century. The pavement was to rise and fall “as if agitated by winds and to present the likeness of a storm.” It was supposed to invoke the position of Venice upon perilous waters.

In the thirteenth century a programme of mosaics was formally introduced, taking their example from the church of the Holy Apostles but introducing specifically Venetian motifs. These in turn were erased, restored only in the seventeenth century. In the fourteenth century the façade of the basilica was partially transformed in Gothic style. So the church arose by a process of accretion and accommodation, encrusted and adapted over the centuries. Marbles and statues—bought or stolen, it made no difference—were attached to it in almost haphazard fashion.

The basilica is unique. To some it has a Moorish air; to others it appears to be a relic of Byzantium; others admire the window traceries and the great screen as miracles of the Gothic style. The derivations do not matter. It is possibly the most beautiful building in the world. It rises from the square like an apparition wreathed in clouds of jasper and porphyry, of opal and of gold. As a piece of chromatic decoration, it is unsurpassed. The pillars and porches and domes rise one above the other, ornamented with mosaics and sculptures that tell stories from the divine and human worlds. The play of light and dark across the façade is increased by the deployment of closely ranged columns. It exudes a kind of barbaric splendour.

Upon entering the interior, the visitor is lost in twilight. It is like some great cavern beneath the sea filled with sunken treasure. It has been shaped in the form of a cross, but there are shadowy aisles and alcoves lit by the flame of a candle or the gleaming of an icon. There are five hundred columns of porphyry, serpentine and alabaster. The roof is a sea of gold. The mosaic work, covering forty thousand square feet (3,700 sq. m), is a skein of iridescence thrown across the walls and arches. Divine light was more significant than natural light. The interior is filled with silks and enamels, gold and rock crystal, as if it were itself a bejewelled reliquary. It is a church of merchants suffering from what one English traveller described as “religious horror,” in the sense of awe and dread. It is a church of material wealth and costly display. It is also a church of rare commodities. Here is the icon of the Virgin painted by Saint Luke. Here is the stone of granite from Mount Tabor, on which Christ preached to the people. Here is the executioner’s block, stained with the blood of Saint John the Baptist. Here are marble columns from the Temple of Solomon. Here, in the chapel of Saint Isidore, lies Saint Mark. It is the perfect stage setting for ritual devotion.

In its present form the campanile or bell tower of the basilica was erected at the very beginning of the sixteenth century, taking the place of an old watchtower that had stood on the site for seven hundred years. There had been an attempt to build a new bell tower in 1008, but the structure had sunk into the ground. The present campanile was used as a vantage point from which to view the city, and a defensive station from which to scan the sea. It was continually being struck by lightning until the introduction of a lightning rod, but there was no disaster worse than that of Bastille Day, 1902, when it buckled and folded upon itself, neatly imploding into a large pile of rubble. It fell, as the Venetians said at the time, “like a gentleman.” There were no fatalities, except that of the caretaker’s cat. The largest of the bells, “La Marangona,” fell two hundred feet (60 m) without incurring any damage. It was then determined to rebuild the tower dov’era, com’era—where it is and how it is. Ten years later the campanile rose again, indistinguishable in its outward appearance from its predecessor. That was the Venetian way. It is said that if the visitor arrives in Venice to the sound of “La Marangona,” then that visitor has the soul of some dead Venetian being welcomed back to the city.

The palace of the doge, beside the basilica itself, is the other sacred site of the city. Proust’s grandmother journeyed to Venice, when she was dying, simply in order to visit this place. Proust wrote that “she would not have attached so much importance to that joy she got from the ducal palace if she had not felt it to be one of those joys which, in a way we imperfectly understand, outlive the act of dying, and appeal to some portion of us which is not, at the least, under the dominion of death.”

The original palace was erected at the beginning of the ninth century, but was destroyed in 976 during one of the few civil riots in Venetian history. It was continually enlarged and adapted; wings were pulled down and constructed; halls and passages and galleries were introduced. In the early fourteenth century, according to the narrative of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, the original “Byzantine Palace” was supplanted by a “Gothic Palace,” the latter coinciding with the final triumph of the aristocratic polity. This is the building that faces the bacino or pool. It became the home of government. Architecture has always been a statement of power. This Gothic palace itself grew and grew, with new halls and saloons to accommodate the increased complexity of the government apparatus. Ruskin compared it to a “serpent” that eventually bites its own tail.

The apartments of the doge were still within what was known as “the old palace” or, in other words, the decayed Byzantine original. In 1422 it was decreed that it should be pulled down and what Ruskin called the “Renaissance Palace” erected in its place. Ruskin believed that the demolition of the Byzantine structure was an act of vandalism, dating from its removal “the knell of the architecture of Venice, and of Venice itself.” His eschatological tendencies may not now find favour. Yet by degrees the whole complex took the form that can still be seen. It was gutted by fires, endlessly restored and adapted; but it survived. The ducal palace, as it is now, took its final shape in the middle of the sixteenth century. Like the city and the government, the development of the palace was gradual and pragmatic.

It was not the home of the doge only. It was the site of government, with chambers for the great council and the senate and the multitudinous committees that made up the Venetian state. It housed the prisons and the stables. What is most remarkable, however, is what is not there. It is not defended. There are no walls or barbicans. A wall was thrown around it at the beginning of the tenth century, in response to the threat of Hungarian invasion, but that was demolished two centuries later. The government was considered secure, both from internal and external enemies.

The palace is, or seems to be, a miracle of lightness. The European observer is accustomed to heaviness of foundation and lightness of summit. In the ducal palace the expectation is disappointed. The long double-storeyed arcade, at ground level, creates the illusion of space and airiness. The deep shadows within the arcade act as a metaphor for the foundation. The darkness has the illusion of volume. The upper part of the façade is made up of tiny marble pieces of pink and white and grey, in the pattern of damask, shimmering in the light of the lagoon. The whole structure has the exact proportions of a cube, but it is a cube of light. The palace might be said to float like the city itself. It is not, in Proust’s phrase, under the dominion of death.

Two great fires, of 1574 and 1577, enveloped the halls of the senate and great council. The works of Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, and others, were destroyed. Yet their destruction provided, as it were, a blank canvas on which the late sixteenth-century myth-makers of Venice could work their wonders. A new sequence of paintings was commissioned. The official artists of the time (among them Veronese and the now elderly Tintoretto) did not invent any of the artistic programmes. They submitted to the wishes of their political masters. They were ordered to re-create the ideology of the ruling class in triumphal terms. This they proceeded to do. They invented a completely imaginary history of the city. They defined its power. They celebrated its virtues. They deliberately copied the Venetian art of preceding centuries in order to project the idea of enduring identity; lost images were restored, old symbols reaffirmed. It is the essence of the conservatism of Venice. The artists depicted the battles won by Venice. They painted votive images of deceased doges. They proclaimed Venice as Justitia and Liberator. The works were not considered as individual masterpieces, but as parts of a coherent whole. The paintings in the palace represented the ethos of the Venetian community in a more embracing sense. The project lasted for twenty years. It was an allegory of the state itself.

Before the palace lies Saint Mark’s Square, perhaps more properly known as the Piazza. It is the only true square in Venice. It was once the site of two islands, facing the Bacino di S. Marco, separated by a narrow canal. Much of the present square was a grass field on an island named “Il Morso” for its hard and tenacious soil. This was the site of the first ducal palace and the ducal chapel. On the same island were two churches, and a hospice for pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. They were the nucleus from which the present square grew. It was decided that a place of assembly should be erected for the Venetian commune. It was necessary to build courts also for the administration of justice. So power, and authority, gradually accrued to the site.

In the twelfth century the Square was enlarged approximately to its present size. The trees and vines were cleared, and the new site was paved with bright brick of herringbone pattern. The new pavement covered the old canal that had once divided the two small islands. (Its waters still run beneath the present square.) Now all was a coherent whole. Covered walks were built around three sides of the square, against which houses were constructed, leaving the basilica clear to sight. The effect, according to Marino Sanudo, was “as if one were at a theatre.” The effect had not been planned by one architect or designer; it was a miracle of collective will.

The importance of the Square was sealed when two great columns, brought from Constantinople in 1171, were placed on the edge of the bacino. There was a third, but it fell into the lagoon. The remaining two have stood there ever since, surmounted by a lion and an image of Saint Theodore. The columns and the basilica, however, are the only surviving remnants of the medieval arena—with the possible exception of the pigeons, or doves as some prefer to call them. The birds have haunted the Square since its beginnings.

Shops appeared under the newly built arcades, in the twelfth century, and in Venetian fashion proceeded to monopolise the territory. The square became a place of trade. Sheds and stalls of every description, selling food and merchandise, littered the site. The stalls of money-changers were set up beneath the campanile; a meat market conducted its business beneath the windows of the ducal palace. Rows of shops selling cheese and salami and fruit once stood where now the tourists line up for the vaporetti, the buses that run upon the water. Where the famous Library now stands, there were bakeries. In the piazzetta, the smaller part of the Square facing the lagoon, five hostelries competed for custom. The pillars of the ducal palace were used as public latrines, and it was noticed that the patricians would lift their gowns and paddle through the pools of urine without complaint. In fact it was observed that the Venetians relieved themselves wherever and whenever they wished.

And of course beggars congregated beneath the arcades, displaying their wounds and diseases. It was the space for the great religious and civic ceremonies of the city; it also was the arena for bull-fights and horse races. It was the place of punishment. Prisoners were hung in cages from the campanile, and beheadings were carried out between the two monumental pillars. In the summer of 1505 the gibbet was removed from the Square, and three flagpoles put in its place before the basilica. That was the final touch for the official canonisation of the space. Between the ducal palace and the basilica stood the stone of proclamation, a truncated pillar of porphyry from which the doge pronounced judicial sentence. It was like any large medieval town, in other words, except for the overwhelming majesty of the site itself. This order and this disorder, this beauty and this squalor, are the key to any understanding of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Venice.

In the 1530s one architect above all others modelled the Square as it now appears. Jacopo Sansovino was charged with the task of creating a classical space out of the medieval confusion. He built the church of S. Geminiano, on the opposite side of the Square from the basilica, demolished later on the orders of Napoleon. He constructed the great Library and the Mint that faces the bacino; he also re-created the loggetta at the base of the campanile. He found a square of brick and turned it into marble. The Square was, for Thomas Coryat, “of that admirable and incomparable beauty, that I thinke no place whatsoever may compare with it.”

It was the central point of the city, the place to which all of the tourists were directed or towards which they drifted. An Englishman of the eighteenth century noted “a mixed multitude of Jews, Turks, and Christians; lawyers, knaves, and pickpockets; mountebanks, old women and physicians … people of every character and condition.” After his victory in 1797 Bonaparte razed the church of S. Geminiano in order to build a third range of stately apartments; this completed the trilateral shape of the Square in triumphant form. He also removed the bronze horses and dispatched them to Paris. They were returned in 1815.

Throughout the centuries of turmoil it remained the place of meeting and assignation. Ruskin’s wife, Effie, described it as a “vast drawing room lighted enough by the gas from the arcades all around the Square” where wandered “a dense crowd in the centre of men, women, children, soldiers.” Effie Ruskin’s husband saw it in more apocalyptic terms. He described it as “filled with the madness of the whole earth,” filled with “idle Venetians of the middle classes” and military bands; in the recesses of the arcades lay “men of the lowest classes, unemployed and listless” while around them begged the urchins of the city “full of desperation and stony depravity.” And this is what aroused his anger—not one Venetian ever glanced at the wonderful basilica. “You will not see an eye lifted to it, nor a countenance brightened by it.” It is still one of the paradoxes of the city. It has been often said that, if you sit at a table in Florian’s or Quadri’s for long enough, everyone you have known in your life will eventually pass by. If it were once the case for the middle-class Englishman or German, it is not the case now. You will see only knots of tourists from every country under the sun.

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