Sunset in Venice



IT is something of a mystery that this age of thralldom and decline for the rest of Italy was for Venice a golden age. She had suffered severely from the wars of the League of Cambrai; she had lost many of her Eastern possessions to the Turks; her trade with the Eastern Mediterranean was repeatedly disturbed with war and piracy; her commerce with India was passing to Portugal. Why, then, could she support in this period architects like Sansovino and Palladio, writers like Aretino, painters like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese? In this same age Andrea Gabrieli played the organ and led the choirs at San Marco, and wrote madrigals that sounded through Italy; music was a pampered passion of rich and poor; the palaces on the Grand Canal were rivaled in interior luxury and art only by those of bankers and cardinals in Rome; a hundred poets recited their verses in booths and taverns and public squares; a dozen companies of players performed comedies, permanent theaters were built, and Vittoria Piissimi, la bella maga d’amore, “the lovely sorceress of love,” was the toast of the city as an actress, singer, and dancer as women replaced boys in female parts, and the reign of divas began.

Only the lamest explanation of the mystery will be given here. Though deeply injured by war, Venice had never been invaded; her homes and shops remained intact. She had recovered her mainland possessions, and included populous cities like Padua, Vicenza, and Verona among her tributaries in education, economy, and genius (Colombo and Cornaro at Padua, Palladio at Vicenza, Veronese from Verona). She still dominated large areas of trade in and near the Adriatic. Her leading families had still unspent treasures of nursed and inherited wealth. Old industries continued to flourish, and found new markets in Christendom; it was now, for example, that Venetian glass reached its tenuous crystalline perfection. The Venetian leadership in luxury products was maintained, and in this age Venetian lace first acquired fame. Despite religious censorship, Venice still gave asylum to political refugees, and to intellectual refugees like Aretino, who fumigated his hilarious ribaldries with periodical contributions to the literature of piety.

Toward the end of this period Venice twice demonstrated her civic vigor and resilience. In 1571 she took a leading part, with Spain and the papacy, in equipping the armada of two hundred vessels that destroyed a Turkish fleet of 224 ships off Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth. That victory, which may have saved western Europe for Christendom, was celebrated by Venice with three days of mad rejoicing: the region of the Rialto was hung with cloths of turquoise or gold; every window made the canals colorful with flags or tapestries; a great triumphal arch rose at the Rialto bridge; and paintings by the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and Michelangelo were displayed in the streets. The subsequent carnival was the wildest that Venice had ever known, setting the pace for many later carnivals; everyone masked and frolicked, laying a moratorium upon morality; and clowns like Pantalone and Zanni (i.e., Johnny) gave their names to a dozen languages.

And then, in 1574 and 1577, tragic fires in the Ducal Palace gutted several rooms; paintings by Gentile da Fabriano, the Bellini, the Vivarini, Titian, Pordenone, Tintoretto, and Veronese were destroyed; in two days the labor and art of a century disappeared. The spirit of the republic shone out in the rapidity and resolution with which the damaged interiors were restored. Giovanni da Ponte was commissioned to rebuild the chambers on their former lines; Cristoforo Sorte designed in twenty-nine divisions the marvelous ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio; and the walls were painted by Tintoretto, Veronese, Palma Giovane, and Francesco Bassano. In other rooms—the Collegio or meeting place of the Doge and his council, the Anticollegio or antechamber, the Sala de’ Pregadi or Senate Hallceilings and doors and windows were designed by the greatest architects of the age—Iacopo Sansovino, Palladio, Antonio Scarpagnino, Alessandro Vittoria.

Iacopo d’Antonio di Iacopo Tatti was by birth (1486) a Florentine. He “went very reluctantly to school,” says Vasari, but took eagerly to drawing. His mother encouraged this disposition; his father, who had hoped to make a merchant of him, was overruled. So Iacopo went to serve as apprentice to the sculptor Andrea Contucci di Monte San Savino, who loved the lad so well, and taught him so conscientiously, that Iacopo came to look upon him as a father, and adopted Andrea’s cognomen, Sansovino, as his own. The youth had also the good fortune to make a friend of Andrea del Sarto, and perhaps learned from him the secrets of graceful and animated design. While in Florence the young sculptor carved the Bacchus now in the Bargello, famous for its perfect balance, and for the skill with which arm, hand, and vase—lightly poised on the finger tips—were cut from one piece of marble. Everyone (except Michelangelo) was kind to Andrea, and helped him up the hill to excellence. Giuliano da Sangallo took him to Rome and gave him lodging. Bramante commissioned him to make a wax copy of the Laocoön; it was so well done that it was cast in bronze for Cardinal Grimani. Perhaps through Bramante’s influence Andrea turned from sculpture to architecture, and soon received lucrative commissions.

He was in Rome when the sack came, and, like many other artists, he lost all his possessions. He made his way to Venice, thinking to go to France; but the Doge Andrea Gritti begged him, instead, to strengthen the pillars and cupolas of St. Mark’s. His work so pleased the Senate that he was made state architect (1529). For six years he labored to improve the Piazza San Marco, banishing the butchers’ shops that had sullied the Piazzetta, opening new streets, and helping to make St. Mark’s Square the spacious delight that it is today.

In 1536 he built the Zecca or mint, and began his most celebrated building, the Libreria Vecchia, facing the Palace of the Doges. He designed the façade with a stately double portico of Doric and Ionic columns, handsome cornices and balconies, and decorative statuary. Some have rated this Old Library “the most beautiful profane edifice in Italy”;1 but the multiplication of columns is excessive, and the structure can hardly compare with the Palace of the Doges. In any case the Procurators liked it, raised Sansovino’s salary, and exempted him from war taxes. In 1544 one of the main arches collapsed, and the vault crashed down. Sansovino was thrown into jail and heavily fined, but Aretino and Titian persuaded the Procurators to release and pardon him. The arch and vault were repaired, and the building was successfully completed in 1553. Meanwhile (1540) Sansovino had designed the pretty Loggetta, or vestibule for police, on the eastern side of the Campanile, and had adorned it with bronze and terra-cotta sculptures. In St. Mark’s he cast bronze doors for a sacristy, and took occasion to portray, among the reliefs, not only Aretino but Titian and himself.

The three men had now become firm friends, enviously known in Venetian art circles as “the Triumvirate.” Many an evening they spent together, talking shop, or entertaining such beauty as could be engaged for the time. Iacopo rivaled Aretino in popularity with women, and Titian in longevity. He remained strong and healthy, and (we are assured) enjoyed perfect eyesight, till his eighty-fourth year.2 For fifty years he never consulted a physician; during summers he lived almost entirely on fruit. When Paul III invited him to succeed Antonio da Sangallo as chief architect at St. Peter’s, he refused, saying that he would not exchange his life in a republic for service under an absolute ruler.3 Ercole II of Ferrara and Duke Cosimo of Florence in vain offered him large stipends to take up residence at their courts. He died peacefully in 1570, in the eighty-fifth year of his age.

In that year appeared an epoch-making work—Four Books of Architecture—by Andrea Palladio, who gave his name to a style that endured here and there into our own time. Like so many others, Andrea went to Rome and was thrilled by the ruined grandeur of the Forum. He came to love those broken columns and capitals as the finest conceptions that architecture had ever reached; he almost memorized Vitruvius; and his own book strove to restore to Renaissance building all those principles which, he thought, had created the glory of classic Rome. It seemed to him that the finest architecture would avoid all ornament that did not spring spontaneously from the constructive style itself; it would pledge itself to a strict proportion, connection, and congruity of the parts in an organic whole; it would be classically noble and strong, as chaste as a vestal virgin, and as dignified as an emperor.

His first major work was his best, and is one of the outstanding structures of secular Italy. Around the Palazzo della Ragione or Town Hall of his native Vicenza he built (1549f) magnificent and powerful arcades, transforming an undistinguished Gothic core into a Basilica Palladiana that might vie with the Basilica Iulia of the Roman Forum itself: a tier of arches sustaining Doric columns and pilasters, a massive architrave, a railing and balcony elegantly carved, a second tier of arches, on Ionic columns, a classic cornice and railing, and—above each spandrel—a statue rising to oversee the city and give it an exemplar of greatness. “I do not question,” he wrote in his book twenty-one years later, “but that this fabric may be compared with the ancient edifices, and be looked upon as one of the most noble and beautiful buildings erected since the time of the ancients.”4 If he had confined his challenge to civic buildings the boast might stand.

Palladio became the hero of Vicenza, which felt that he had surpassed Sansovino’s Libreria Vecchia. Rich men plied him with commissions for palaces and villas, ecclesiastics for churches; before he died (1580) he had transformed his city almost into an ancient Roman municipality. He built a loggia for the city administration, a pretty museum, a splendid Teatro Olimpico. Venice called him, and there he designed two of her finest churches—San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore. Even before his death he had become a powerful influence in Italy. Early in the seventeenth century Inigo Jones brought the Palladian style into England; it spread through Western Europe, and came to America.

Perhaps it was a misfortune. It never really captured the dignity of Roman architecture; it confused its façades with a plethora of columns, capitals, cornices, moldings, and statuary; the details detract from the simple lines and clarity of a classic edifice. And by reverting so humbly to an ancient style, Palladio forgot that a living art should express its own epoch and mood, not those of another age. That is why, when we think of the Renaissance, we do not call to mind its architecture, nor even its sculpture, but above all its painting, which bore lightly the traditions of Alexandria and Rome, freed itself from cramping and uncongenial Byzantine molds, and made itself the authentic voice and color of the time.

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