Making the myth: how Venice reinforced its sense of self

We are, in the book under review, with the myth of Venice, but not the myth as a political model influential throughout Europe, nor the myth as projected but not on all counts coincident with reality, but the myth as experienced by Venetians or visitors to their city—the myth, in other words, as inculcated by the authorities in a series of religious services, rituals, displays and processions. However, by contrast to Edward Muir’s classic book of 1981, Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice, Iain Fenlon has studied not the quotidian, seasonal round of ceremonies carried out in various sites of the city—more for internal consumption—but the propagandising use of San Marco and its surrounding spaces, and in particular the convulsions of display and celebration that accompanied or followed the Holy League’s victory at Lepanto in 1571, the reception of King Henry III of France in the city in 1574, and the great plague of 1575–77, in the extremities of which, in September 1576, the Senate sought deliverance by voting to build a new church, Palladio’s Redentore. Deliverance came, but was followed late in 1577 by a second terrible fire within three years in the Doge’s Palace. Though Dr Fenlon writes off Venice’s revival in the 18th century by insisting that the 1570s ushered in “terminal” decline, the decade was certainly turbulent, and one sympathises with a source whom he quotes clearly confused by these strokes of God both high and low. Francesco Sansovino’s formula, articulated a few years earlier in his Cose notabili or guide to the city, that its periods of misfortune were always followed by still greater triumphs, had clearly been shattered.

Dr Fenlon’s book is packed with information, its footnotes and bibliography running to more than 100 pages. Its first part sets out the development of the legend of St Mark, analysed at each stage as a series of inventions aimed at becoming what in the Eastern Church would be autocephalous—master of one’s own apostolic succession. The status of the entity located in the nexus of the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica was constantly expressed, consolidated and increased by its adornment as well as by the spoken and written word. From this contextualisation we move to “A Disquieting Decade”, a narrative of the events and aftermath of Lepanto notably accompanied by documentation of the music that formed an intrinsic part of the thanksgiving ceremonies; unfortunately, though it may sound in the writer’s mind’s ear, there is no equivalent in the book to the plates that accompany the text (among which I missed Leandro Bassano’s depiction of the Doge in state embarking from the Piazzetta, in the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, perhaps the best of all such pictures). Both these chapters and the following narrative of Henry III’s entry draw on the fullest range of printed and manuscript sources. However, the fuss made over Henry III’s visit remained for me somewhat unexplained, even if, as Dr Fenlon argues, it was partly intended to mask the Venetians’ betrayal of the Holy League by clandestinely making peace with the Turks as soon as they could after Lepanto; might he have explored an idea among the Venetian patriciate in those changed times of improving the purity of their blood with the help of a king’s touch? Why, when Charles V’s entry into Bologna had been followed by Titian’s portraiture, was there no Venetian image of the French king (the story of one by Tintoretto seems to be apocryphal)? The 1575–77 plague flung the state into a dilemma between hushing up and taking drastic measures and, piquantly, between acting on the emerging medical understanding of contagion and summoning the city to meet together in mass pleading with the Almighty—the course taken.

This is an excellent book, although it is somewhat laden down by repetition. One has the curious sensation that the author did not trust the reader to read the book through from the beginning, so everything is explained—again and again—whenever it comes up. Sometimes, then, it is more an instructive than a fascinating evocation and contextualisation of the ceremonies with which Venice presented itself while still in its Golden Age but also desperate.

Paul Holberton

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