Myths of Venice: The Figuration of a State / Edition 1

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Rosand explores the imagery that the Republic of Venice developed to represent itself as the ideal, serene state, founded with holy purpose and protected by divine favor. He argues that Venice—more than any other political entity of the early modern period—shaped the visual imagination of political thought. This visualization of political ideals, and its reciprocal effect on the civic imagination, is the larger theme of the book. Time period: early modern period, esp. 13th-16th centuries

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
Prodigiously learned in iconography, David Rosand has provided an impressive account, with copious illustrations, of the 'visualization of political ideal' in late medieval and early modern Venice. . . . Rosand's exposition of the decorative schemes and their allusions is thorough and convincing, and will appeal to all but the most iconoclastic historians of Venice.
New York Review Of Books
Rosand's Myths of Venice provide[s] expert guidance through the intricacies of this more private Venetian artistic symbolism, revealing its underlying sense much as a good map will reveal the basic rationality behind the city's complex web of islands, paths, and waterways. Designed for the curious general reader, physically compact, fluidly written . . . [an] ideal . . . traveling companion.
Stanley Chojnacki
Rosand here provides specialists with a synthesis of his authoritative studies of Venetian culture; at the same time his accessible eloquence will claim a wide readership among Venice's many non-specialist admirers.
Washington Post Book World
[An] impressively learned volume. . . .The book also provides numerous illustrations, some in color, extensive endnotes and a wide-ranging bibliography. . . . [This book] helps us better understand just why this beguiling city has, for so many centuries, fascinated the world.
Patricia Fortini Brown
The scholarship in back of this deceptively straightforward presentation is what we have come to expect of Rosand as one of the leading scholars of Venetian Renaissance art.
Washington Post Book World
[This book] helps us better understand just why this beguiling city has, for so many centuries, fascinated the world.
New York Review of Books
Rosand's Myths of Venice provide[s] expert guidance through the intricacies of this more private Venetian artistic symbolism, revealing its underlying sense much as a good map will reveal the basic rationality behind the city's complex web of islands, paths, and waterways.
Library Journal
Venice has inspired both Wills (St. Augustine) and Rosand (Painting in Sixteenth Century Venice) to write remarkably laudatory works on the artistic legacy generated by the Renaissance mythmakers and propagandists of that city. Both authors emphasize the importance Venetians placed on creating a historical identity that would set them apart from other Italians and other nations. Venice was unique in Italy for being a city created after the fall of the Roman Empire. The mythical date for the foundation of Venice, March 25, is also the date of the Annunciation and of Christ's crucifixion significant, as Venetians saw it, in giving a unique spiritual flavor to their city. Wills and Rosand look at the paintings, sculpture, and architecture in Venice with the aim of examining how these works illustrated and glorified incidents in the history or myth that the Venetians created for themselves and the wider world. Rosand stresses the importance of English writers in propagating the myth of Venice as a unique state possessing an exemplary political constitution and so ensuring the city a literary immortality in the English-speaking world. Wills's more anecdotal book covers Venetian literature and politics to a greater degree, showing how various social and political factors were crucial to the formation of Renaissance Venice. But both stress the importance that art played in the creation of the city's sense of identity, and both are highly recommended for public and academic libraries. [Wills's book was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/01.] Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Rosand's Myths of Venice provide[s] expert guidance through the intricacies of this more private Venetian artistic symbolism, revealing its underlying sense much as a good map will reveal the basic rationality behind the city's complex web of islands, paths, and waterways. (New York Review of Books)"

"[This book] helps us better understand just why this beguiling city has, for so many centuries, fascinated the world. (Washington Post Book World)"

Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. (Library Journal)

"The scholarship in back of this deceptively straightforward presentation is what we have come to expect of Rosand as one of the leading scholars of Venetian Renaissance art. (Patricia Fortini Brown, Professor of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University)


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807856635
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 8/29/2005
  • Series: Bettie Allison Rand Lectures in Art History Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 5.02 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

David Rosand, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University, is well known for his studies of Venetian art. His books in that field include Titian; Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto; and The Meaning of the Mark: Leonardo and Titian.

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Read an Excerpt

For this book on the myths of Venice, I might well have borrowed the title that Jacob Burckhardt gave to the first part of his classic Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: "The State as a Work of Art." For, in a quite literal sense, that is my subject: that is, the imagery developed by la Serenissima Repubblica, the Most Serene Republic of Venice, to represent itself. I am concerned with what has become fashionably known as Renaissance self-fashioning, but here on a monumental scale.

More than any other political entity of the early modern period, the Republic of Venice shaped the visual imagination of political thought; just as she instructed Europe—and, ultimately, the independent colonies of America—in the idea of statehood, so she taught how to give that idea eloquent pictorial form, especially through the figuration of the state. It is that imaging, the visualization of political ideal and the reciprocal effect of such imagery on that ideal, that is my theme. I am concerned not only with the official iconography of state per se, but with the ways in which such imagery resonates within a culture, the ways in which visual motifs acquire an aura of association and allusion dependent upon a network of shared values and habits of interpretation—what Aby Warburg called "the maintenance of the 'social mneme.'"[1]

Over the course of several centuries, Venice had refined a portrait of itself that responded to and exploited historical circumstance and vicissitude—including its despoliation of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, its final victory over its maritime rival Genoa in 1380, and, in the early sixteenth century, its survival of the war with the League of Cambrai, an alliance of the major powers of Europe and Italy determined to humble the expanding Republic, and its determined resistance to papal interdict, especially in 1508 and again in 1606.[2] The character of this self-portrait, calm and confident, derived from the celebrated internal political stability of the Venetian republic, founded upon its well-ordered constitution and rule of law. That collective image—of the self-proclaimed Most Serene Republic as an ideal political entity whose ruling patriciate were selflessly devoted to the commonweal—has come to be known as the "myth of Venice."[3]

The relevant dictionary definition of myth here is "the fictions or half-truths forming part of the ideology of a society." The myth of Venice represents a composite of a number of related such "fictions or half-truths" that the Republic invented of and for itself—its origins and legitimacy, its divine favor and holy purpose—and those myths came to be figured in a corresponding number of icons. The first of these was the image of the city itself, miraculously rising out of the waters of the lagoon. The others were figures symbolic of the Republic: its patron saint, the evangelist Mark, and the winged lion that stood for him, and then the regal personification of Venetia herself, Queen of the Adriatic.

The personified Venetia in particular came to epitomize in a single figure the virtues of the Republic, embodying the special qualities claimed for the state itself. An anatomy of this concentrated manifestation of the iconography of the myth of Venice reveals some of its many dimensions, the complexity of its genesis, and the referential range inherent in the forms of her self-presentation. Yielding a clearer understanding of the myth, such an exploration will also elucidate the nature and operations of such imagery. In isolating the individual elements that collectively constitute this image of Venice, we will want to consider the degree to which they continue to resonate separately, necessarily recalling their origins even as they participate in the formulation of a new visual and ideological construct. We will want to test the subsequent reception of such figuration and consider to what extent such later response and commentary offer a legitimate reflection of original or intended meaning. And this takes us to the heart of the matter: the ways in which an image signifies, the dimensions and reach of its meaning.

Several individual elements contribute to the Renaissance compound of Venetia figurata. Each of them draws upon an independent tradition of its own; each contributes a particular aspect to the new construct, a set of values as well as of visual possibilities. The main constituents of the figure of Venice that will interest us include a rather interesting range of models: from the figure of the Virgin Mary and the personification of the cardinal virtue of Justice to the pagan figures of the goddess Roma and of Venus, the goddess of love.[4]® The very possibility of figuring Venice depended upon the special nature of that polity. Personification was possible only on the basis of an essential precondition: the abstract concept of the state.

Out of the facts and fictions of its history, the Republic of Venice wove the fabric of propaganda that represents the essence of the myth of itself: an ideally formed state, miraculously uniting in its exemplary structure the best of all governmental types—that is, monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy—and, most significantly, institutionalizing this harmonic structure in a constitution that was to inspire other nations for centuries.[5] True, political activity was restricted to a small ruling class definitively circumscribed by the end of the thirteenth century, a patriciate comprising those families whose previous governmental participation and service to the state had qualified them for such "nobility." These families—that is, their males over the age of twenty-five—constituted the Maggior Consiglio, the great council that represented the democratic base of the government. From the great council were elected the members of the senate, the oligarchic component. At the top of this pyramidal organization was the doge, the monarchic element. Elected for life (and usually late in life) through a balloting process of truly Byzantine complexity, the doge was the symbolic embodiment of the Venetian state; his power, however, was severely restricted as Venice zealously guarded its republican virtue against potential tyranny or dynastic aspiration.

With its governmental structure and operations fixed in its celebrated constitution, Venice came to stand for the very idea of the state, an ideal abstraction reified and functioning on earth. It was the rule of law that maintained the serenity of this polity. The very survival of the Republic for well over a millenium seemed proof of its privileged status among nations. A sovereign state, unconquered—until 1797, when it finally surrendered its independence to Napoleon—Venice celebrated its own immutability, remaining secure in its lagoon fortress and in the righteousness of its institutions, the guaranteed and absolute rule of law that made it the paragon of justice in the eyes of the world.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Miraculous Birth 6
2 The Peace of Saint Mark 47
3 The Wisdom of Solomon 96
4 The Appropriation of Olympus 117
Notes 153
Bibliography of Works Cited 167
Index 179
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