Having reached its zenith of wealth and power some 800 years after its founding on several tiny mud flats in the northwestern Adriatic marshlands, the tiny city-state of Venice attained a level of civility unprecedented in Post Roman Europe. As its ships returned laden with cargo from the East, its stature, riches and naval might made it the greatest sea power of Renaissance Europe. A city state, ruled by an oligarchy that resisted monarchy, centered on a cluster of close lying islands with canals and rios for throughways and alleys, commanding a vast network of trade routes, it exercised its might in every corner of the Mediterranean. Nowhere in the history of the world, had so much display of power and wealth been concentrated in so compact a space. Great palaces and basilicas, cloaked, decked and pinnacled in refined sculpture, golden mosaics, marble cornices and master painting, were raised cheek to jowl on every available piece of canal bank, crowding and outdoing each other like courting peacocks in a pen.
Venice, a city that never had a population of more than 250,000, would have more than its share of home grown painter, sculptors, writers, architects, artisans and worldly citizens. The list is a long one that includes: masters like Vivarini, Titian, Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese, Donatello, Canaletto, Sansovino, Codussi, Palladio, Tiepolo, Carpaccio, Canova, Casanova and a long list of others. Because of its wealth and prestige, Venice also attracted at one time or another nearly every major artist, writer and philosopher working in Renaissance Europe and Rinascimento Italy. Both Dante and Petrarch were sent there as ambassadors. Venice can also claim to be the place in which the museum was conceived and given form. Venetian collectors garnished their public facades with imported and home-conceived treasures and were perhaps the first to open up their studioli of various curiosities, art and antiquities for public display and also, it seems, the first to build structures specifically to house the display of those objects.
The city's cultural and political history is not without its own many contradictions, ironies and stains. Like the Romans before them, Venetian armies brought booty back from conquered cities, though unlike Rome, Venice's wealth and power was built mainly on a network of trading outposts not garrisons and militarily enforced puppet governments. It is also very hard to imagine through our modern eye that the Venetians prided themselves on a certain egalitarian modesty (mediocrita) best reflected in their use of the word Ca' for casa or house rather than Palazzo or palace to describe their patrician dwellings. Since the Republic steered scrupulously clear of having kings or ruling dynasties, the patriarchal families were often berated for public displays of ostentation, though it's clear this was a rule that was given a great deal of flexibility in its execution. The city's patron saint and most cherished relic is St. Mark, of New Testament prominence. Mark had nothing to do with the origins of a city that did not even exist during his lifetime but in the 9th Century several enterprising Venetian merchants, as the story goes, managed to purchase and then smuggle his remains out of Moslem dominated Alexandria by hiding them out of the reach of port inspectors under a cargo of reviled salt pork The church bearing his name is one of the most spectacular in all Christendom.
Venice also gets credit for contributing the word ghetto to our modern vocabularies, though the word itself (foundry) has nothing to do with its modern connotations.. Nonetheless, the amount of room the ruling councilors set aside to lock up its 5,000 Jews at night, is shamefully less than the space it set aside for a typical orchard in any of the many monastic orders.
By the 17 Century, as the European world turned westward, outnumbered in its own waters and traditional Dalmatian hinterlands by the Ottoman Turks, Venice gradually fell into a crumbling decadent shell of itself. Its patrician families, whose ranks had been forever sealed way back in the 12th century, clutched the remains of their patrimonies: La Serenissima, or the most serene republic, as it liked to called itself -- fell into miserliness so penurious that a dowry required from a marriageable female --eligible by wealth and breeding to mate an equal-- could easily total what on "terra firma" amounted to a king's ransom. The city, fighting to maintain its gentility, became awash in a sea of surplus daughters, walled away in a maze of nunneries, and sons locked out of inheritances, forced to find new lives. John Cabot, of English and North American historical fame, or Giovanni Caboto as he was known in his home city, was one such son.
It is estimated that by the time the red priest, Antonio Vivaldi was busy teaching some of the ever increasing number of foundling daughters of the city to perform his urgent yet profoundly melancholic compositions, nearly half the adult women in its population were working prostitutes. Where once it was the great merchant princes who flaunted their wealth in the most magnificent and ornate urban palaces ever seen then or since, it was these worldly women whose dress, manners and jewelry were so flagrantly dazzling that the city fathers passed one decree after another to limit their conspicuousness. The noble oligarchs that held power over the centuries in this closed republic, it is said, ruled that the courtesans of the city were to be required to bare their breasts at all times when out in public, supposedly to limit their daytime activities. It's also said that, demonstrating just how far out of touch these old men had become, their decree, instead of causing a diminution in female presence on the streets and in Europe's first cafe's, had quite the opposite effect. Long before the courtesans of Paris took their society openly to the streets, staid, strict, mannered, cloistered Venice was the unlikely founding site of the liberty of European women.
After an unprecedented 1100 years of independence, La Serenissima, a city of gilded domes, finally fell to the armed wave that spread across Europe led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte led to the further decline of the city stripping it of monuments and artworks. For a while, the four gilded horses that the Venetians had brought from the East --some think they were cast in China-- to place in honor above the main entrance to St. Mark's Basilica, were given pedestals in the Louvre. Romantic European poets, writers and composers would take up residence in Venice during that decaying century in which the French occupiers would be quickly followed by the Austrians. John Ruskin, the British essayist and critic is perhaps the foreigner who is most associated with the city during its time of greatest loss but Byron, Wagner, the Brownings, Thomas Mann and many others have their stays marked by stone plaques set on the facades of numerous palaces and hotels. Ruskin wrote about The Stones of Venice and even purchased their rubble --he bought the ruins of a monastery Napoleon pulled down to improve the view from his palace. In its decline he projected in Stones all of his own innermost struggles, revising the Shakespearean concept of Diseased Love:
I do not wonder at what men Suffer, but I wonder often at what they Lose. We may see how good rises out of pain and evil; but the dead, naked, eyeless loss, what good comes of that?... the whole majesty of humanity raised to its fulness, and every gift and power necessary for a given purpose, at a given moment, centred in one man, and all this perfected blessing permitted to be refused, perverted, crushed, cast aside by those who need it most,... these are the heaviest mysteries in this strange world, and, it seems to me, those which mark its curse the most. And it is true that the power with which this Venice had been entrusted was perverted, when at its highest, in a thousand miserable ways: still, it was possessed by her alone.... That mighty Landscape, of dark mountains that guard her horizon with their purple towers... that mighty Humanity.... the majesty of thoughtful form, on which the dust of gold and flame of jewels are dashed as the sea-spray upon the rock, and still the great Manhood seems to stand bare against the blue sky ... then judge if so vast, so beneficent a power could indeed have been rooted in dissipation or decay. It was when she wore the ephod of the priest, not the motley of the masquer, that the fire fell upon her from heaven. [X, 178-179]
The contemporary city of Venice that Ruskin would hardly recognize, but now firmly a part of Italy, and from where we are happy enough to be writing this, is no longer a major city even in its own country. It remains, however, thanks to the efforts, skills and imagination of its forefathers, encapsulated, --like the patrician museums of another day, a blend of what once was and a cabinet of curiosities some real some fake,- into one of the world's great wonders.
Venice is now, also partaking in a bit of millennial irony primping herself even further for the rise of China, land of half the world's population, where, if only a relatively small percentage of its inhabitants reach that state of affluence called middle class, its tourists will outnumber all the travelers combined since the dawn of time. As a prelude, look today into the canals from the arched stone bridge under your feet down into the gondolas passing just meters below the step you stand on and you will see in this Autumn of 2005, bobbing poltrones filled with smiling, chattering Asians as busily snapping their bits and bytes of memory as any diligent German or ambitious Californian. And in a measure of past and present, the gondoliers, their hands and feet tied up in the operation of their rather bizarre profession, still banter to each other over the grimy waters in their deeply rooted dialect, whilst their dependents busily message each other on their ever in-hand cell phones. In Venice, hardly anyone looks up at the stone heads jutting from the keystones of every palatial portal; the tourists stare at each other and into the shop windows crowded with the latest fineries our consumerist world can produce and the shadows of fineries past while the armies of commuters tap out instant messages and peer into tiny screens on their hand held devices for the staccato replies.
We're reminded, watching these tourists being paddled around, that when Marco Polo, certainly one of the most famous of all Venetians, got back from his journeys to Cathay, no one in his home city believed his stories of a major kingdom situated in the distant East where all manner of things were done in such a refined and civil way that, by comparison, rough and bustling Gothic Europe, barely on the brink of rediscovering its own classical past, seemed quaint and primitive. In his native city, already demonstrating a unique blend of Arabic, Romanesque, Byzantine and European architecture, there was mainly disbelief and scorn for his stories. Marco, always the adventurer, ended up in the prison of rival Genoa, the other great sea power of the day, and to help do his time, wrote down a personal recount of his adventurers in the court of the great Khan. For that effort, he was dubbed by his fellow Venetians, Marco Millioni for the millions of lies he recounted in those pre-Gutenberg pages. Still, copies were made, and gobbled up eagerly throughout a Europe looking outward from the confinement of the Church's primitive cosmology and hungry for a good secular yarn.
For centuries Venice's last line of defense were the many secrets of its navigable channels. Attackers could not bring their warships too close for fear of meeting an unexpected underwater hazard. Something of the same can be said today of the city's maze of cobblestone streets. A tiny alley, hardly wide enough to wheel a suitcase through can be a main passage way from one end of the city to another, while another very promising way can easily end rudely on the banks of its many minor and major canals. In that regard, past a certain hour of the night, when the passerby's no longer make their way from the Rialto to the Academy Bridge or across Dorsoduro or San Polo to the Railway Station --the real way out for most of the people who come here to work and play every day-- the city returns fully to its watery self. Then you know that this city is not only different because their are no cars, no scooters, not even any bicycles but because it is a negative of any other city you have ever visited, a waterway with sketchy land paths not designed for more than neighborhood passage. As late as a couple hundred years ago, these land paths were rarely aimed to anything more than a landing and a back gate. Then, certain canals were filled in for the purposes of making dry, cross city travel feasible.
Still for most Venetians the way from one part of the city to another is marked by the vaporetto, or water bus, stops. Venetians will jump on and off these chugging workhorses of mass transit for one stop to avoid having to walk up and over one of the high step bridges at the Rialto or Academia. Gondolas, mainly a tourism relic, are still used to ferry people out on their daily rounds across strategic points along the Grand Canal where these ferry stops have existed for centuries.
For the Venetians, in their watery splendor, far enough off-shore to be safe, the rest of Italy was nothing more or less than "terra firma". As seafarers and merchants, they did best when they avoided entanglements on land and worst when they tried to dominate their neighbors to the West, on a Lombard plain that saw endless fighting to and fro throughout the most serene republics unprecedented millennium of mostly unthreatened independence.
We invite you to enjoy in the luxury of the season the pictures of this perforce incomplete catalogue of carved stone images, even in the tiniest proportion to our mostly casual pleasure in capturing them. The Carved in Stone collections are dedicated to the vast number of mainly anonymous stone carvers.