There is in Venice an abiding attachment to the surface. It has become commonplace that in the city only the fronts of houses were worth embellishment or decoration. Most of the Gothic façades are simply that—screens that bear no relation to the organic structure of the buildings themselves. It is one of the strangest aspects of a city that in certain respects resembles an ornamental shell. The rich plaster and stucco may conceal decaying brickwork, and Ruskin speculated on the “duplicity” of Saint Mark’s where internal and external ornamentation were quite distinct. The city was built in brick but disguised by marble.
It seemed to matter not at all that behind the sumptuous façades the grand Venetian houses were often cold, dirty and uncomfortable. In similar fashion, among the owners of these houses, there was an outward show of prodigality combined with avarice and penny-pinching at home. That was the Venetian way. It was not at all usual to invite guests, for example, into the house itself; that inward space was confined to relatives and the most intimate friends. The English poet, Thomas Gray, remarked that in their domestic lives Venetians were “parsimonious to a degree of nastiness.”
Honour was important in Venetian society, as in others, but the mark of honour was what was known as bella figura; it might be interpreted as the art of keeping up appearances. One of the great engines of Venetian life was, and is still, the fear of criticism. Everything must be done according to form, and for the sake of form. That form may hide malfeasance and corruption, but it is important that it remains in place. It resembles the façade or screen of the Venetian house.
The twin imperatives of show and spectacle, design and ostentation, move through every level and every aspect of Venetian society. A sixteenth-century account of a bankrupt banker of the Rialto explained in passing that “this market and the city of Venice are naturally very inclined to love and trust in appearances.” The painters of Venice lingered over the rich surfaces of the world. The architecture of Venice had the artifice and outwardness of the theatre. Venetian music has always been concerned with outward effectiveness rather than internal coherence. The literature of Venice was oratorical in nature, whether in theatre or in popular song. No other city-state in Italy was so concerned with problems of rhetoric and style. Venetian ceilings are characteristically false ceilings, suspended somewhere beneath the beams. In the eighteenth century display and spectacle became a way of masking the decay and failure of public policy. It is a constant note, one that provides a clear insight into the identity of the city and its people.
The contemporary restoration of many buildings in Venice is a case history of seeming rather than being. In their devotion to appearances the restorers have created an unreal city, bearing little relation to its past or to its present. The architects and designers were concerned to reprise the aesthetic contours of the city; but these were imagined rather than real, the fruit of wishful thinking and nostalgia. What happened in practice is that they remodelled or modified the architectural language of the past to make it fit their own preconceptions of how Venice really ought to look. Fluting and veneer were removed; horizontal lines were straightened and strengthened; windows were altered to conform to the structure; balconies were narrowed for the sake of overall harmony; attics were taken out, and baroque fixtures replaced by Gothic. For some reason the stronger shades of red and yellow have spread in a city where they did not exist before. The style was known as ripristino. It amounted to the creation of fakes. It is an example of a general malaise of modern Venice, first recognised by the German sociologist Georg Simmel in the early part of the twentieth century. He remarked that the city represented “the tragedy of a surface that has been left by its foundation.” That does not render Venice superficial. Quite the contrary. The attention to surface, without depth, provokes a sense of mystery and of unknowability.
For many centuries Venice has been famous for its glass-making, now the preponderant industry on the island of Murano. What is the attraction of glass for the city of the sea? Glass is material sea. It is sea made solid, its translucence captured and held immobile. It is as if you could take up handfuls of the sea and turn it into brocade. Venice is the place for this. The first writer on the making of glass in Venice, Georgius Agricola, wrote in the early sixteenth century that the glass was formed out of “fusible stones” and “solidified juices,” an apt translation of Venice’s position between water and stone. Sand becomes crystal. It is not Venetian sand, however. It came from Syria and then later from Fontainebleau in France. Yet the Venetian glass-makers were the most ancient, and the most skilled, in the world.
Glass-makers had worked in the lagoon from the time of the Romans. There are finds of glass from the fourth to the seventh centuries, and a seventh- or eighth-century furnace in Torcello shows evidence of Roman manufacturing conditions. Folk tradition always asserted the continuity of glass-making on the islands, and there may indeed have been some legacy of inherited skills. Yet much of the expertise derived from Byzantine and Islamic sources. It is another example of the balance Venice maintained between two worlds.
An individual glass-maker, a certain “Domenico,” is first mentioned in a document of 982. A Venetian guild of glass-makers was established in the thirteenth century. In that same century, for fear of fires, the glass-manufacturers were transferred to the island of Murano. There they flourished. But they were in a sense imprisoned by the state. They could not move to any other part of Italy. To reveal any of the secrets of Venetian glass-making was to incur the death penalty. Any workman who escaped to the mainland was hunted down and, where possible, forcibly retrieved. It is, if nothing else, a token of the importance of the trade in the Venetian economy. Glass-making was vital to the city’s economic success. It would be absurd to suggest that the Muranese workmen believed themselves to be oppressed, or were forced to labour in any climate of fear, but the threat of state punishment is an apt token of the constant presence of the Venetian state in all aspects of Venetian life. It was by no means a free society. It was an insular, and therefore enclosed, society.
They made goblets and ewers, bottles and flasks, beads and chalices, lamps and windows, pitchers and eye-glasses, as well as a range of ornamental objects created out of cristallo, a malleable form with all the translucence and brilliancy of rock crystal. They could render a glass so fine that it was reputed to burst into fragments if it came into contact with poison. The workmen of Murano created glass that had the colour of milk, glass that mimicked the texture of ice, glass threaded with copper crystals. Types of glass resembled marble or metal or porcelain. From the fifteenth century forward, in fact, Venetian glass grew ever more elaborate and ornate. It became a luxury, at a time when Venice had become the provider of luxuries of every description. Objects became ever more useless and ever more expensive. In 1500 one contemporary noted of the Muranese glass industry that “there is no kind of precious stone that cannot be imitated by the industry of the glass-workers, a sweet contest of man and nature.”
Venice had already been involved in that contest, sweet or otherwise, for many hundreds of years. It is another reason for its perfect adaptation to the trade. An early seventeenth-century English traveller, James Howell, marvelled how a furnace fire could “convert such a small lump of dark Dust and Sand into such a precious clear Body as Crystal.” But had not Venice wrought such a transformation upon itself, from the dark dust and sand of its origins? Out of that dust and sand came a crystal city, its churches and bridges and houses billowing out and growing ever more expansive. When the travellers came to Murano, in order to observe all the arts of glass-blowing with spatula and pincer, they were peering into the nature and growth of the translucent city.
The lagoon was often described as resembling molten glass, and indeed glass became a metaphor for Venice itself. There was a saying that “the first handsome woman that ever was made was made of Venetian glass.” Glass is translucent, weightless; it is not a dense material, but is a medium for colour and light. Glass has no content. It is all surface, infolded in crests and waves, where the inner is also outer. Venetian painters learned from their fellow citizens who worked at the furnaces. They learned how to mingle colour, and how to create the impression of flux and molten form. They borrowed material in a literal sense. They mingled tiny pieces of glass with their pigments, to convey the shimmer and transparency they observed all around them. It glimmers; it is flecked by foam; it ripples and undulates; it possesses a giant translucent calm; it has currents of darker colour; it is fluid. So the glass is, like Venice, of the sea.
An early map of Venice, devised in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries; it looks small, fragile and defenceless in its watery world. (photo credit i1.1)
A perspective plan of Venice, painted with oil upon panel, displays the city at its most stately and noble. (photo credit i1.2)
The interior of the basilica of Saint Mark, glowing with the radiance of gold. The roof is a sea of gold. The mosaic work, covering forty thousand square feet, is a skein of iridescence thrown across the walls and arches. (photo credit i1.3)
A mosaic of the Virgin Mary, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, from the basilica of Saint Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Mosaic is the true art of Venice. (photo credit i1.4)
A mosaic of the Flood in the western portico of the basilica of Saint Mark. The fear of encroaching waters was a Venetian obsession. (photo credit i1.5)
The Stealing of the Body of Saint Mark, by Tintoretto. Only in Venice can the artist’s fieriness and extravagance be properly realised. His art is Venice in its purest and most spiritual form. (photo credit i1.6)
The Lion of Saint Mark, painted on panel in the fifteenth century. It is the image of Venice, seen everywhere in the city. The leonine symbol is one of authority and of paternalism. It is also a token of justice. (photo credit i1.7)
Monks praying to Saint Theodore, an illustration of the fourteenth century. Saint Theodore was the patron saint of Venice before being replaced by Saint Mark. He was a wholly Byzantine saint, emphasizing the city’s early affinity with that civilisation. (photo credit i1.8)
A photograph of the piazzetta San Marco, with the pillars of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore guarding the holy space. The piazzetta was redesigned in the sixteenth century as a stage set, with the pillars as the frame. (photo credit i1.9)
A religious procession in front of the basilica, completed by Gentile Bellini in 1496. Such processions had both a civic and spiritual significance. They were the living embodiment of sacred and secular governance in Venice. (photo credit i1.10)
A photograph, taken in the 1880s, of the crowds in Saint Mark’s Square. The Square became known as “the finest drawing room in Europe.” (photo credit i1.11)
The Miracle of the Cross on San Lorenzo Bridge, painted in 1500 by Gentile Bellini. Venice was itself a city of miracles. No city in Europe, with the possible exception of Rome, has witnessed so many. The survival of Venice itself, on the waters, was deemed to be a miracle. (photo credit i1.12)
The departure of the doge’s ship, the “Bucintoro,” towards the Venice Lido on Ascension Day. This scene, painted by Francesco Guardi in the 1760s, depicts the marriage of the city and the sea. The doge halted at the part of the Lido where the waters of the Adriatic and the lagoon meet. Here a large flask of holy water was emptied into the mingling currents. (photo credit i1.13)
The Healing of a Possessed by Vittore Carpaccio, painted in 1494. Here can clearly be seen the Rialto bridge spanning the Grand Canal. The artist faithfully depicts the wooden bridge, the sign of the Sturgeon Inn, the houses and institutions along both banks of the Canal. His is the poetry of urban detail, with its bricks and balconies and chimney-tops. (photo credit i1.14)