Cradles in the Portego

Nicholas Penny

  • The New Palaces of Medieval Venice by Juergen Schulz
    Pennsylvania State, 368 pp, £61.50, July 2004, ISBN 0 271 02351 1
  • Private Lives in Renaissance Venice by Patricia Fortini Brown
    Yale, 312 pp, £35.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 300 10236 4

The inexhaustible appeal of the palaces that line the Grand Canal in Venice owes much to their variety, of materials, textures, colour and relief, as well as period and style. But we cannot miss the common denominators: the ornamental richness that is conditional on freedom from defensive needs, the quantity of windows (with locally made glass) and their concentration in the centre of the façade, expressing, externally, the long hall, or portego, which is the defining feature of the plan of these buildings. Many have speculated that Venetian palaces are descended from Byzantine or late antique building types that were forgotten, ignored or unknown elsewhere in Europe; there are similar myths about the origins of the Venetians themselves.

Juergen Schulz, unhappy with the evidence adduced by proponents of these theories and struck by the absence of research on many aspects of the subject, decided to focus on five of the oldest palaces in the city (only three of which survive) and to trace everything that can be discovered about their history. Even as he tightened the focus of his investigation he broadened his search for comparative material, scanning ancient sites and archaeological publications for secular structures elsewhere in Europe and around the Mediterranean so that he could discover how exactly Venetian buildings differed from them. And, to complement his preoccupation with the bones of buildings – their piles and piers and beams – he decided to survey afresh their ornaments, especially the early ones of notably Byzantine character, since these may be taken to support the case for exotic influence.

His conclusion, which is sure to be controversial but will be very difficult to refute, is that the Venetian palace is entirely European in origin, a very ingenious derivative of a type found in many parts of early medieval Europe, with special features determined by the city’s unusual topography, density and political circumstances. He is well aware that the Basilica of Saint Mark is likely to have been designed to recall the Apostoleion of Constantinople, as churches elsewhere adopted the plan of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but he is not convinced that the design of living space would have been affected by thinking of this kind. He is also aware – perhaps more aware than anyone – of the extent to which the Venetians used capitals plundered from Byzantium on their façades, and of how they then imitated and varied them and also delighted in fabricating decorative reliefs in a Byzantine style. But these were perhaps at first more like trophies or campaign medals than testaments to an adoption of Byzantine values; and even when Venetian carvers reveal a remarkable imaginative sensitivity to the intricacies of Byzantine design and the stylisation of animals and vegetation this need not mean that their patrons took any interest in Byzantine floor plans.

As an exemplary archival historian, Schulz is especially alert to what was not documented. Inventories never mention the storage of boats and boating equipment on the ground floor, yet on his visits to palaces he is forever stumbling over these things and assumes that the ‘practice of keeping them there is age-old’. Indeed, ‘one would not know … where else to put them.’ He finds no evidence to support the widely held assumption, repeated in all modern books on Venetian architecture, that the ground floor of a palace was commonly used for the warehousing of trading goods and for the conduct of business. He can tell us, by reference to a wide range of sources dealing with such matters as the development of the Rialto and the modes of taxation, where storage and trade certainly did take place, and in so doing explodes one of the fundamental myths about the city’s merchant princes.

It is not perhaps surprising that Schulz feels it necessary to provide a succinct account of the growth of central government in Venice, since it meant the formation of a ruling class that came to express its distinction in buildings which turn away from local communities to face the chief thoroughfare of the city, the Grand Canal (the dinginess of the narrow pedestrian entrances to the great palaces always comes as a surprise). His book also includes information on many unexpected topics: the way that legal restrictions on the sale of family palaces were circumvented, the reliability of Venetian guidebooks, the sleeping quarters of servants, the entertainment of visiting princes. Schulz is one of those scholars who turns over every stone and then cannot resist telling us about the stone itself as well as what he finds, or does not find, beneath it.

Patricia Fortini Brown is by no means interested only in palaces. She takes us round the Renaissance city, shows us where the poor lived and where the Jews were confined, tells us something of how charitable organisations operated, how cittadini were distinguished from the common people and how patricians were distinguished from the cittadini and also how the patricians differed in their values from the nobility in other parts of the Italian peninsula. This is good popular history and it is well illustrated. However, her text seems to be determined partly by what she can illustrate and this inevitably entails an emphasis on the affluent, for whose use the walnut folding chair, the spinet and the chessboard, the platform shoes and the walking-frame, and the glass vessels which are now in museums were made.

She gives a clear and engaging account of the way the rooms in Venetian palaces were used. The structure of the rooms was sometimes surprising, and she is especially interesting on the sopraletto, the children’s room above the recessed bed, which she is able to illustrate in some paintings of bedchambers. Of course she is alert to ‘gendered spaces’, as they are called in ugly academic language, including a ‘secret passageway’ (it should perhaps have been translated as a ‘private corridor’) described by the 16th-century architect Serlio, which led to the loggietta segreta where the daughters of the house were secluded. And there are specific homes to peer into: that of Elisabetta Condulmer, for example, recorded in an inventory now in the Archivio di Stato; ‘Let us walk,’ Fortini Brown engagingly proposes, ‘with the notary through the house.’

The walls of the central hall, the portego, are hung with paintings, including a large portrait of Elisabetta herself. In one of many locked chests and boxes (examples are illustrated) we find the ornaments she wore in her hair. Then we discover where she stored her cutlery, and may count the mattresses and shopping baskets. In her wardrobe, incidentally (although it is not mentioned here), we can find a striped silk dress that must be very like the one in Lotto’s painting of a woman holding a drawing of Lucretia in the National Gallery in London. The Condulmers were patricians – there had been a pope in the family a couple of centuries earlier – and Fortini Brown illustrates a painting of their coat of arms, which is mentioned on several occasions in the inventory as adorning the furnishings of Elisabetta’s home. However, Fortini Brown has discovered that Elisabetta’s brother’s legitimacy was questioned, and she includes an illustration showing the page of the Libro d’Oro, the Venetian register of nobility, on which his name is struck out. We may therefore conjecture that Elisabetta’s mother was disreputable, as indeed Elisabetta herself was, since in her will she assigns her children to several fathers and names one man, not her husband, as her ‘signor’. It seems reasonable to agree that Elisabetta was a courtesan.

But can we be so sure of what we see, or rather what we read? The portrait of Elisabetta is described as having a timpano. This is not a curtain, as Fortini Brown supposes, but a detachable stretched canvas cover, a device apparently invented in Venice of which not a single example has survived. This may seem a trifling matter but it stands for a great deal that it is hard to visualise in an inventory of this kind. The inventory records that there were cradles in the portego, but should we surmise from this that babies slept in this room? ‘What did she do when she wasn’t entertaining her signori or tending to the infants who occupied the cradles in the portego?’ Fortini Brown asks. ‘Like any well-brought-up lady, she seems to have practised needlework, for the inventory lists a spinning wheel.’ The familiarity here discourages the scepticism that historians should foster. And how do we know that she herself tended to her babies? When we peer through a window, we sometimes see ourselves reflected in the glass.

The book is based on the Slade Lectures delivered in Cambridge in 2001, and the desire to engage a non-specialist public might well explain the occasional over-confident time travelling. If we want to understand the impact made by the city’s well-stocked shops on a Milanese pilgrim visiting Venice in 1494 it is no help to look at a slide of a modern Venetian boutique selling jewellery, glass and textiles – not because of the spotlights, polyurethane varnish and glass-topped counter, but because the very idea of a shop as an interior where tourists can browse is anachronistic. Nor is it a help, if you want to show what a Renaissance portego looked like, to illustrate, without any cautionary commentary, one of a set of lithographs made in 1843 which is either a neo-Cinquecento fantasy or a record of a neo-Cinquecento interior (or a bit of both). The portego in this lithograph is dominated by chimneypieces and luxury cabinets which would not have been found in such a room in the 16th century.

Better to look at Renaissance paintings, even if they very rarely provide reliable evidence as to the appearance of contemporary interiors. Here Fortini Brown has much of interest to say, for instance on the subject of textile wall-coverings, which inventories suggest were ubiquitous. She also makes some bold and provocative claims. Tintoretto’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is compared to a kitchen still life by Joachim Beuckelaer, in which the same episode is glimpsed in the distance. The comparison is said to ‘tell all’ about the Venetians’ lack of interest in food. It might be significant if the paintings belonged to the same genre, but they do not. It might also be significant if we knew that Venetians took no interest in the genre of paintings represented by the Beuckelaer, but there is good evidence to the contrary.

William Thomas in the middle of the 16th century and Thomas Coryat at its close are quoted in support of the idea that the Venetians were ‘spare of living’. In Coryat’s words they kept ‘no honourable hospitality, nor gallant retinue of servants about them, but a very frugall table’. It is doubtful how familiar these writers would have been with the social activities of patrician society, which was largely closed to foreigners, but Fortini Brown’s claim that the relatively bare tables in Veronese’s famous paintings of biblical feasts support her assertion about frugality seems very peculiar, not least because these pictures do nothing to support her other claims: they are perhaps the best illustrations of ‘honourable hospitality’ and of a ‘gallant retinue’ of servants that it is possible to find.

‘Only recently have the more mundane products of the artisan – furniture, glass, ceramics, metalwork, textiles and costume – received serious scholarly attention within their full social and historical contexts,’ Fortini Brown says. If we are able to study these things today it is because they were collected and often written about with such care more than a hundred years ago, before the establishment of academic art history encouraged concentration on the fine arts. When the Venetian art dealer Michelangelo Guggenheim donated his collection of historic textiles to the Museo Correr and published the first monograph on historic picture-frames; or when Lady Layard translated a treatise on lace-making and her husband, Sir Austen Henry Layard, helped to establish a collection of historic Venetian glass on Murano; and above all when John Charles Robinson bought ceramics, metalwork, glass and textiles from Venice for South Kensington, the ‘products of the artisan’ were receiving plenty of ‘serious scholarly attention’. As for the ‘full social and historical context’, that was surely what Pompeo Molmenti endeavoured to supply in his great Storia di Venezia nella vita privata of 1880 – which Fortini Brown does allow to have been ‘fundamental’, although she distinguishes her own book as ‘part of the discourse set underway’ by Goldthwaite, Jardine, Schama and other modern interpreters of ‘early modern European material culture’.

Donations to the Correr, the foundation of the Murano museum, the translation of a treatise on lace and the publication of a book on frames may be related directly or indirectly to the revival of the luxury textile industry, of lace-making, of Venetian glass and of virtuoso woodcarving in the city. Furthermore, the impetus for Molmenti’s study on the ways life in Venice had changed owed a great deal to his awareness of the drastic alterations to the city and its traditions made in his lifetime. These are a few of the topics ingeniously interwoven in Margaret Plant’s Venice, Fragile City, a comprehensive cultural history of Venice between 1797 and 1997 which attracted less notice than it deserved when it appeared a few years ago.[*]

Now that the 19th is no longer the ‘last’ century there is less of a tendency to give it a separate and even degenerate identity, treating it as neither respectably old nor properly modern. Although most of us would not wish to abandon the idea that much changed decisively with, or because of, the French Revolution, we are inclined also to discern continuities, in art as in much else – in London, Rome and even Paris. But not, or very much less so, in Venice, where art is generally supposed to have expired with the fall of the Republic. Painting especially. Hayez, for example, is hardly known to most English-speaking students of art history who work on Delacroix and Ingres, with both of whom he can be compared. His paintings can be seen only in Italy and although the room devoted chiefly to him in the Brera is one of the most beautiful in any European museum, foreign visitors seldom loiter there. The sparkling 18th-century capricci and vedute by Guardi are scattered over all the public and private collections of Europe and the United States, yet the witty compositions and brilliant touch of Giacomo Favretto (though he was once internationally acclaimed) can be studied only in these Italian museums of modern art which one would like to see renamed and in some cases amalgamated with the Old Master collections.

Of course it is conceded that Canova was the greatest sculptor of the early 19th century – but it is, understandably, often forgotten that he was Venetian. Architectural historians also allow that Giannantonio Selva’s Neoclassical buildings have merit, but his reputation has suffered from an awareness of what he was obliged to destroy (something it is less easy to forget when it happened in 1810 rather than 1610). Selva, however, was not the only great architect working under French and Austrian rule. Lorenzo Santi’s tautly monumental patriarchal palace of the 1830s provides as exhilarating a corrective as the nearby marble buildings by Sansovino to the numinous but ungainly mass and untidy decorative patchwork of San Marco, and his great staircase for the Royal Palace (now used as an entrance to the Correr Museum) is not only one of the most magnificent of its date in Europe but as subtle as any earlier Venetian building in the way its structural elements and different planes are distinguished by shades and colours of stone.

Many of the finest 19th-century interiors in Venice are not easy to visit, but this is changing. Unesco’s offices have moved from the Napoleonic rooms in the Royal Palace; the occasional use of Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti for exhibitions makes Carlo Boito’s staircase, with its highly original combination of baroque and gothic themes, more accessible; and the great rococo revival interiors of Palazzo Papadopoli are being restored by their owners and will be made available for receptions. These last-mentioned interiors have been dismissed as mere imitations, but they interpret the 18th century rather as Venetian (and English) 18th-century architects interpreted the 16th century. There are still art-lovers who dismiss as inherently trivial any 19th-century paintings that feature 18th-century dress (many by Favretto belong to this category), but soon enough this will be found to have much the same charm and interest as Tiepolo’s adoption of the costumes of Veronese.

Michelangelo Guggenheim, who created the Palazzo Papadopoli interiors, was a more important figure in the cultural life of Venice than Peggy (who was no relation). As an art dealer he did much to disperse the city’s treasures, removing Tiepolos from walls and ceilings and selling leather hangings and wellheads to the likes of Isabella Stewart Gardner or Madame André (of the Musée Jacquemart André). But as a designer, decorator and entrepreneur he fostered the revival of Venice’s arts and crafts. The destruction of old churches, the adoption of palaces by foreign residents, the sale of old collections to visitors, all of which we associate with the 19th century, were in fact continuations of 17th and 18th-century tendencies.

What was different in the 19th century was the city’s political domination by France and then Austria, followed by its absorption into the Kingdom of Italy. Much that is said about moral decadence and political weakness in the 18th century anticipates the glib commentaries of later visitors, such as Ruskin, whose contempt for the city’s inhabitants was equalled only by their ignorance of them. The really important change was the conviction that Venice was dead, dying or deadly, a metaphor for something terrible or thrilling, and this feeling in some form survives, whether in the grotesque revival of carnival or in the scientific support for Shelley’s vision of the city in the future with all its ‘isles depopulate’, and the palace gates with ‘green sea flowers o’ergrown/like a rock of ocean’s own’.

Margaret Plant’s succinct but sympathetic discussion of Favretto leads her to Goldoni, whose subject-matter Favretto borrowed and whose plays remained continuously in favour in the 19th century. She notes that the genial statue of the dramatist by Antonio dal Zotto (in recent years subjected to incessant abuse by revellers) was promoted by Favretto’s friend Pompeo Molmenti in his great cultural history. Molmenti was also a major figure in the reappreciation of Tiepolo. And together with Camillo Boito, he was probably the most influential figure in the debates about modernising the city. Plant’s summary of the conservation issues involved in this is cleverly interwoven with an evocation of Boito’s disturbing fiction. Then she explores Wagner’s work in the city and his death there, and his significance for d’Annunzio, Barrès, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, before stepping back to the success of Verdi’s Otello with its libretto by Camillo Boito’s brother, Arrigo. All of this occupies a fairly small section in the middle of her book.

Lovers of the city may find something she has missed (I regret that there is nothing on the façade of the Danieli Excelsior near the S. Zaccaria vaporetto stop with its modern sans serif lettering in traditional gold mosaic and its tough – I suppose Fascist – rhythms taken up in the obligatory Venetian balconies), but they will be far more amazed by how well informed she is, writing with equal authority on the development of the Biennale and of the Lido, on the modern housing at Saca Fisola and on the Pink Floyd concert of 1989. One can disagree with her. Are Monet’s predictable views with their hot colour and repetitive cursive handling ‘so intensively personalised that they become expressionistic’? Is Proust’s depiction of Venice really so significant when compared with his treatment of those places that he invented? But the context she provides for the works of both painter and writer is illuminating, and she introduces English-speaking readers to dozens of less familiar writers and artists. Favretto is one example from the 19th century and the architect Carlo Scarpa from the 20th is another. Both once enjoyed international reputations though their names may now mean little. Both, in their very different ways, responded to the traditions of the city, and the ideas of history, which are peculiar to Venice, and our awareness of these traditions and ideas deepens gradually as we read Plant’s remarkable book.

[*] Venice, Fragile City 1797-1997 (Yale, 550 pp., £29.95, November 2002, 0 300 08386 6).