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City of Myth


The Map Unrolls

There are many maps of Venice, not all of them very reliable. It must be one of the most mapped cities in the world, and yet in a sense it is unmappable. The calli are too labyrinthine, the connections are too circuitous. There are just too many alleys and passageways to be set down on paper. The city does not in any case exist on one level, but on the canals, along the bridges, beside the first-floor windows. An all too familiar sight is that of tourists brandishing maps and looking up vainly at the names of streets and bridges. They may find themselves somewhere that is “not there.” It is impossible for the stranger not to get lost in Venice. Cities of the mind, in any case, cannot be found on any map.

The first surviving map of Venice, where the eventual shape of the city can clearly be seen, was produced in the early twelfth century. The most famous map, however, remains Jacopo de’ Barbari’s “bird’s-eye view” of 1500. This was the map that created the image of Venice as significant form. Its detail was unparalleled, its execution unrivalled. Yet it was a symbolic, rather than naturalistic, representation. It imparted a form of sacred geometry and in the process emphasised the role of artifice in the creation of the city. Mercury, sitting on a cloud above the city with the axis of the Rialto market and the basilica of Saint Mark directly beneath him, announces that “I Mercury shine favourably upon this above all other markets.” Neptune gazes at him from the waters of the lagoon, declaring that “I Neptune reside here, smoothing the waters of this port.” The city itself takes the form of a dolphin disporting on the waves. It is also deserted, lending credence to the belief that Venice was more important than any of its passing inhabitants. They were merely the shadows upon its walls. The map was of course useless for any practical purpose. As another fifteenth-century Venetian cartographer, Fra Mauro, put it, “my map … was only one version of reality. It would only be of any use if it were employed as an instrument of the imagination. It occurred to me that the world itself should be seen as an elaborate artifice, and the expression of a will without end.”

Many Venetian maps were also an expression of the city’s mercantile interests. They were designed not simply to outline the trading routes to Cathay or Trebizond, but to facilitate the passage of trade in places where no one from the city had ever traded before. There was much competition, for example, to find a sea route to the spices of the Indies. On the back wall of the loggia beside the Rialto market were frescoes composing a mappamundi; in the loggia itself was kept a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo.

The Venetians were expert, and famous, cartographers. They were looking for fixity, and certainty, in their watery world. It is easy to understand their obsession in a city where map and reality rarely meet. Map-making represents the desire for order and control. It is another aspect of the all-observing government. The Venetian authorities, for example, commissioned many detailed maps on all aspects of the provinces on the mainland under their dominion. It was perhaps in this spirit of conquest that a Venetian cartographer wrote the first essay on landscape painting. There were no landscapes in Venice. Landscapes could only be created out of colonised territory. In 1448 another Venetian map-maker, Andrea Bianco, first intimated the existence of the Americas by drawing an “island” in the approximate position of Brazil. A Venetian, Giovanni Contarini, executed the first accurate map of Africa at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Maps of the world covered the walls of the houses of the prominent merchants and patricians. The apartments of the ducal palace were decorated with maps that outlined the trading routes of Venice across the known world. In a painting of the mid-eighteenth century by Pietro Longhi, “The Geography Lesson,” a fashionable patrician lady consults a globe with a pair of compasses in her right hand; an open atlas lies at her feet. Fra Mauro himself, a Benedictine monk from Murano, created a famous mappamundicomplete with symbolic detail and scriptural reference. He declared that he had created it “for the meditation of the illustrious rulers” of the city. By the middle of the fifteenth century there was a workshop in Venice devoted wholly to the production of maps. The Venetian map-makers were particularly renowned for their portolano charts, maps of coastlines designed specifically for the use of sailors. In 1648 there was established in Venice an Academy of the Argonauts that specialised in the publication of maps and globes.

It is no wonder, therefore, that a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo was kept in the Rialto. Polo is the most famous of all Venetians, with the possible exception of Casanova, and he is the most famous of all travellers. His was in one sense a typical Venetian business story. He was part of a trading family. There were once two brothers, born in the Venetian parish of S. Giovanni Grisostomo, who were at the head of a mercantile house in Constantinople; it was a branch of their family business. They were patricians but, in Venice, patricians thrived on trade.

In 1260 Niccolò and Matteo Polo, at a time of great turmoil in the Byzantine city, decided to travel east in order to find new markets. They took with them a stock of jewels, well hidden in their clothes, and began a long journey into Central Asia. They made their way to the city of Bukhara, in the region now known as Uzbekistan, where wars and rumours of war delayed their progress for almost three years. It was their good fortune, however, to become acquainted with some envoys on their way to the court of the Great Khan, “the lord of all the Tartars in the world.” It was not an opportunity to be missed. So they travelled to the city of Kublai Khan. The emperor was courteous and inquisitive; he questioned them closely about the laws and customs of their society. At the end of their stay in Peking, he entrusted them with a message for the pope and requested them to return to him with oil taken from the lamps that burned before the sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem.

It took them another three and a half years to make their way back to Venice. They had not seen their city for fifteen years and, on their return, Niccolò Polo found in the household a son who was now sixteen. He had been named after the guardian saint of Venice. Eventually they received letters of papal blessing and privilege from the new pope, Gregory X, and were able to take a phial of the precious oil. Then they returned to the court of Kublai Khan, with young Marco Polo as part of their company. Once more their journey lasted for three and a half years. Yet the most intriguing part is yet to tell. Twenty-four years later, three strangers arrived in the parish of S. Giovanni Grisostomo. They wore coats of coarse wool like Tartar warriors. They had long hair and long beards, their skin harshly burned with long exposure. Marco Polo, together with his father and uncle, had finally returned home.

They were not recognised as members of the Ca’ Polo. They spoke a barbarous Venetian. They would very likely have been removed from the parish as imposters. Then Marco put the matter to the proof. He took the three coats of homespun wool, and ripped them open. Sewn within them were multitudes of precious jewels—rubies, sapphires, diamonds, emeralds—that they had acquired through the generosity of the Great Khan. The Venetians were of course instantly convinced by this lavish display of wealth and, according to the chronicler, received the travellers “with the greatest honour and reverence.” Marco Polo became known as Marco Millione, and the courtyard of his house became known as the Corte Millione. Recent excavations on the site of his family house have revealed the laying of new foundations that date from the time of Polo’s return; his money did not remain in jewels.

The world knows that the story does not stop there. Marco was a great patriot and at his own expense fitted out a galley for the war against the Genoese. At the battle of Curzola, in September 1298, Polo was captured and taken. He was incarcerated in a Genoese gaol, where he lay for about a year. During that time he became known for his fabulous stories of distant lands. And he found an amanuensis. An old man from Pisa, known as Rusticiano, took down his narrative in a curious antique French borrowed from the romances. The written account has all the marks of verbal delivery—“this is enough upon that matter, now I will tell you of something else,” “now let us leave the nation of Mosul and I will tell you about the great city of Baldoc,” “but first I must tell you.…”

The manuscript was copied. It began to spread. But after his imprisonment Marco Polo returned to a quiet and obscure life in his native city, engaged in nothing more than the usual commercial routine. He presented one copy of his book to a visiting French knight, but there is no record of any other connection with the work that has made him immortal. He died in 1323, at the age of sixty-nine. On his deathbed he declared that he had not told half of the things that he had seen. It was once believed that his stories were just that—stories—but in recent years it has become more and more evident that he was in fact giving a true record of the nations and cities through which he travelled. He was practical and prudent, clear-headed and with an eye for detail. He also has an almost child-like energy and curiosity that permitted him to survive many years of wandering among bewilderingly strange peoples. He was very much a Venetian. We might almost deem him to be a Venetian hero, except that the city detested heroic individuals as a threat to the well-being of the state.

From the narrative of his travels it is clear that Polo journeyed across the whole longitude of Asia on behalf of Kublai Khan, eager to know the details of his empire. Only a Venetian, perhaps, could have carried out such a mission. He was the first traveller to reveal the wealth and greatness of China, to describe the steppes of Mongolia and the fastness of Tibet; he wrote of Burma and of Siam, of Java and of India; he expatiates on the sorcerers of Pashai and the idolaters of Kashmir; he narrates the battle between Genghis Khan and Prester John.

His was in many respects a miraculous journey, but Polo was really following a Venetian tradition. Diplomats and other officials were required to give detailed written reports or relazioni of the foreign cities they had visited. Polo’s book was in part intended to provide the Venetians with an object lesson in good governance. It could be said in fact that, a few years after the traveller’s return, the Venetian government did introduce some of the principles if not the details of the Mongol system. They were following the precepts of the Great Khan, the Great Lord of Lords, whom Polo describes as “the most potent man, as regards forces and lands and treasure, that exists in the world, or ever has existed from the time of our first father Adam until this day.”

The merchants of Venice, too, needed precise relation of the conditions of local societies and local economies. What were their needs? What could they sell? Just as they were trained to appraise goods with an objective eye, so they were keenly observant of local conditions. They needed, above all else, information. It is appropriate, then, that Polo particularly observed the trade in all the cities that he visited. Of the city of Kubenan, in Persia, he wrote that “there is much iron and steel and ondanique, and they make steel mirrors of great size and beauty.” Once he had described how people earn their livings he would often add that “there is nothing else worth mentioning.”

The Venetian patricians were professional travellers, predominantly in their role as merchants. Unlike their contemporaries in Florence or in Hamburg, they could not survive without accurate knowledge of the coasts and seas. So the spirit of travel was always part of Venetian consciousness. How could it not be, when the city faced outwards to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean? By the ninth century Venetian traders had visited Egypt, the Euxine region and the sea of Azov. In the early fifteenth century there was a Venetian serving as a knight in Denmark. A century later a Venetian shipbuilder was prospering in the yards of Elefante in India.

There are travellers’ tales of Greenland and of Tartary. Pietro Querini sailed into the Arctic Ocean in 1432; forty years later, Giosafatte Barbaro touched the shores of the Caspian Sea. When John Cabot (a citizen of Venice by choice and state decree) made landfall in the New World, he planted the flag of Saint Mark beside the English standard. It is worth mentioning, perhaps, that Sebastian Cabot was born in Venice; he went on to discover Labrador in 1498, and was to be found in the lower reaches of the Rio della Plata in 1526. In the middle of the fifteenth century a young Venetian patrician, Alvise da Mosto, travelled to Senegal and discovered the Cape Verde islands. He wrote down the details of his journeys, in true Venetian fashion, since he was “the first that from the most noble city of Venice have set forth to sail the Ocean beyond the straits of Gibraltar towards the south, to the land of the Negroes.…” He was first and foremost a trader, however, exchanging horses and wool and silk for slaves and parrots.

The object of the Venetian travellers was to achieve both profit and honour; social authority and esteem were derived from commercial wealth, and these journeys of discovery were designed to acquire all of them. That is why many merchants kept journals of their progress. It was a way of confirming their exploits, and their diaries acted as memorials for the family business. The first travellers’ accounts were published at Venice in the fifteenth century. In 1543 was issued an anthology of travel writing entitled Journeys from Venice to Tana, Persia, India and Constantinople. The first steps were taken from the city of the lagoon.

Maps transcribe frontiers. Venice was always a frontier. It was called “the hinge of Europe.” It has the essence of a boundary—a liminal space—in all of its dealings. It is a perpetual threshold. It is half land and half sea. It is the middle place between the ancient imperial cities of Rome and Byzantium. It was the place where Italy mingled with the Orient, and where in more general terms Europe mingled with Africa. It was the place to take ship for the Levant and leave behind the world of Christendom. That is why some considered it to be the sacred mission of Venice to unite western Christendom to the rest of the world—to the Greek Christians of the Bosphorus as well as to the adherents of Islam and Hinduism.

Goethe described it as “the market-place of the Morning and Evening lands” by which he meant that the city, poised between west and east, is the median point of the rising and the setting suns. When the empire was divided in the time of Charlemagne the lagoons of Venice were ascribed neither to the west nor to the east; according to the Venetian historian, Bernardo Giustiniani, they were left “inviolate and intact almost as certain holy places.” He went on to say that “these places were left as kinds of boundaries between both emperors.” In the medieval period the postal service provided by Venetian galleys was the only means of communication between the courts of Germany and of Constantinople. The first images of the Muslim world came from Venice.

It was a frontier, too, between the sacred and the profane. The public spaces of the city were liminal areas between piety and patriotism. The boundaries between past and present were ill-defined, just as the boundaries between private and public were endlessly transgressed. This was the place where Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Christians, Turks and Europeans, Roman and Orthodox, all met and mingled. All the civilisations that made up the Mediterranean—Graeco-Roman, Muslim, Judaic and Christian—found a focus in Venice. It was said of Venetian painters of the fifteenth century that they had effected a synthesis between the Tuscan and Flemish styles of art. The city was the doorway between the cold north and the warm south, first fashioned for trade but then a means of access for the general business of life that flowed across Europe.

Venice in every sense represented cultural and social heterogeneity. By some it was considered to be Oriental, with the basilica of Saint Mark as the very model of a mosque and the Rialto as a souk. That was why the city was so distrusted by other European nations. It contained within itself intimations of “the Other.” It is pertinent and suggestive that the Arabic words that penetrated the Venetian dialect are largely concerned with trade—so we have zecca (mint) and doana (customs house) and tarifa—or concerned with luxuries such as “sofa” and “divan” and “caravanserai.” “Alas Venetian race,” Pius II wrote in 1458, “how much of your ancient character have you lost! Too much intercourse with the Turks has made you the friend of the Mohammedans.” The façade of the ducal palace, facing the lagoon, is Muslim in inspiration. There are in fact borrowings and adaptations—of Islamic architecture and Islamic art—throughout the city. Even the Venetian colours, ultramarine blue and gold, are derived from the Middle East. The trade routes, the organised seagoing caravans, even the craft guilds, of Venice were Muslim in origin. There was a genuine sympathy with, and admiration for, Islamic civilisation that was not unconnected with distaste for papal pomp. In the paintings of Carpaccio, for example, Venetian interiors are shown to be decorated with objects of eastern provenance; the throne of the Virgin in Gentile Bellini’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned” is placed carefully on a Turkish carpet or prayer rug.

Venice was in many respects akin to Byzantium. It borrowed both concepts and practices from the ancient city, to the rule of which it had once submitted. It was even known as the second Constantinople. It was a hierarchical, rather than a feudal, society. The influence of Byzantine civilisation was noticeable in the way that the young girls of Venice were kept secluded, and in the custom of separating men and women at church services; it can be seen, too, in the stiffness and pomp of the religious ceremonies where the rituals and relics of the Byzantine Church are to be found in abundance. There is something Oriental, too, about the stateliness and symbolism of Venetian political life with its elaborate bureaucratic machinery and its solemn practices of election. Was the doge not also a form of emperor? He could be seen in a similarly sacred light. In Holy Week the doge impersonated the last days of Christ. This was also the role of the Byzantine emperor.

The basilica of Saint Mark was based upon the model of the Apostoleion in Constantinople. The chroniclers of Venice also report that the church was the work of an architect from that city, but the claim is disputed. There seems to be no doubt, however, that there were Muslim artisans resident at the time. The religious polity of Venice, with its notion of a state Church, is based upon Byzantine example; the head of that Church was known as the patriarch, as at Constantinople.

There are many other derivations. The notion of the Arsenal, an arms manufactory funded by the government, is taken from Byzantine practice. The long black cloak, worn by the male patricians of the city, is taken from the model of the Byzantine kaftan. The ritual scattering of coins to the people, on the occasion of the election of the doge, is a practice borrowed from the eastern emperors. The art of keeping detailed records is surely derived from the early experience of Byzantine bureaucracy. The word itself—“Byzantine”—has become a synonym for excessive detail. In Venice, too, everything was committed to writing. When Venetian males grew beards, at times of national or personal sorrow, they were following their eastern contemporaries. The love of puppets and of puppet theatre has an ancient ancestry. Of course Italians in general have long maintained a tradition of puppetry and mask theatre, but Venetians acquired their love of puppets from the more spectral tradition of Byzantium that emphasises the melancholy aspect of the inanimate doll until human desire gives it breath.

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