Everywhere I go on research trips in Europe, there is some art or architecture that grabs me. In Milan, the Gothic Duomo and Romanesque Sant’Ambrogio; in Paris, the Gothic Everything-Omygosh; in Florence, early Renaissance painting (esp. Fra Angelico); in much of Germany, the mediaeval houses and Baroque churches and palaces (both exemplified in Wolfenbüttel, as I’ve noted).
In Venice, it’s Veneto-Byzantine.
And I don’t mean ‘Byzantine stuff looted in 1204 and after.’
That’s here, too. It’s worth looking at.
Veneto-Byzantine is Venice’s answer to the rest of western Europe’s Romanesque. It was popular in Venice throughout the Middle Ages, right up into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although you’ll find a few Gothic things in Venice, they’re usually isolated architectural elements — even in the altarpieces. Mostly, things move into Early Renaissance, even the altarpieces (okay, maybe some of that qualifies as Late Gothic).
What makes it Byzantine? Well, just take a look at it:
The image pictured above, one of the mosaics in San Marco basilica, is not a western Romanesque motif. My guidebook to San Marco says it is of Christ in Limbo, but the title gives it away, ‘? ???? ???C??C?C’ — The Holy Resurrection.
What we westerners call ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ is the Byzantine representation of the Resurrection, and this mosaicist knows it.
And you can’t go telling me this is a typical western Blessed Virgin Mary:
Of course, beneath Theotokos you see some bits of Latin. But the artistic style is decidedly Byzantine.
Both times I’ve gone into San Marco, I’ve been stunned almost to stumbling by the Veneto-Byzantine mosaics therein. They are stunning. They are more powerful than any of the beautiful frescoes I saw in the painted churches of Cyprus. They are worth a visit.
Little bits of Byzantine and Veneto-Byzantine religious artwork and devotion are scattered about Venice if you know what you’re looking for. And even if you don’t, this icon of Cypriot bishop St Spyridon, in Museo Correr, requires no training to identify.
Of course, some Byzantine nods are harder to spot. For example, if you visit the church of Vivaldi’s baptism, San Giovanni Battista in Bragora, you are unlikely to realise that the little side chapel dedicated to San Giovanni Elemosinario is not only adorned by modern Byzantine-style icons and what looks to be an altar-cloth embroidered with Armenian is, in fact, dedicated to a seventh-century Byzantine saint, St John the Almsgiver, Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria. That same church also has a Veneto-Cretan icon in it — the result of Crete remaining a Venetian possession after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453.
In the Galerie dell’Accademia — which I recommend — you will find some very lovely examples of Veneto-Byzantine icons, including the Madonna and Child to the left, by Veneziano (c. 1325). This piece is strikingly Byzantine — however, some aspects feel distinctly western. The Theotokos is not gesturing at the Christ Child, and he is leaning out quite dramatically to bless the viewer. Yet the flatness, if you will, and the perspective, and the colouring, and the inclusion of the rosettes on the Theotokos’ garment, all resonated more with the Byzantine than the Gothic.
And even when Veneziano painted Gothic, there were traces of Byzantine in him. In the Accademia, further along, there is a polittico or polyptych (in this case, looks to be a Gothic altarpiece) by him — the ‘Lion Polyptych’. The figures all have that airy quality associated with the Gothic, and Sts Dominic and Francis are there to greet you. But then you are struck by the miniatures along the bottom — Sts Savvas, Macarius, Paul of Thebes, Ilarius (Hilarion?), Teodorus. And St Antony in the large figures. Not as western as first glance would have you believe …
Why does Venice have such strong eastern ties? Much of the Veneto-Byzantine art, indeed the greatest of it (San Marco’s mosaics, the Last Judgement in the cathedral on Torcello) pre-dates the 1204 sacking of Constantinople, after all.
Well, by 1204 Venice was already thoroughly ensconced in a literal and mercantile empire that was primarily focussed on the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, easterners and their goods were constantly coming through Venice. There was bound to be some impact on the place as a result.
But that clearly isn’t a good enough explanation, given that other cities and countries did similar things without developing their own version of Byzantine art. Venice, you see, has been a fiercely independent city for her whole history. She resisted the onset of Ostrogoths, Lombards, and Franks who came through northern Italy. And part of this was done by allying herself with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, who viewed herself as the rightful ruler of Italy.
This alliance meant that from the outset, Venice’s vision turned East to the Adriatic coast and beyond for trading opportunities — to the Byzantine Empire and those within her sphere of influence.
As a result of this two-pronged political and mercantile focus on the Byzantine East, Venice’s art was drawn East as well — or rather, stayed that way. Given what we see much earlier in Ravenna, it is safe to say that Byzantine was the style for northeastern Italian cities at the time. And given what we see around the same time in Milan, Byzantine and Romanesque are not so far off.
It is glorious and beautiful. You can’t miss it if you go to Venice, unless you neglect to visit the Basilica, in which case you are a fool.