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The Ceremonial City: History, Memory and Myth in Renaissance Venice (review)
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Yale University Press has established itself as the premier publisher of beautiful academic books, and Iain Fenlon's new study of Venetian ceremonial life is indeed beautiful. Sumptuously illustrated, the book is nevertheless a serious work of scholarship by a well-known historian of music. The chronological and topical range is wide, from the founding of St. Mark's basilica sometime after 828/829 to the 1570s when four major events —the victory at Lepanto, the visit of King Henry III of France, plague, and fire in the Ducal Palace—transformed Venetian self-consciousness and, in particular, reshaped ceremonial life. In a final section Fenlon considers how these events "metabolized" (ix) Venetian historical understandings of their own famous myth. The book roots itself in the ceremonial spaces and life of Piazza San Marco, but is historically oriented toward the triumphs and traumas of the late sixteenth century. Throughout the book, changes in ceremonial practices are correlated to representations of Venetian myths and events in paintings, sculpture, buildings, historical writing, and music.

The book covers subjects familiar to specialists, even as it attempts to integrate different disciplinary subjects into a uniform vision of the city. Fenlon's original contribution comes largely from his incorporation of music into the picture. All kinds of music appear, from the liturgy of the basilica to popular songs, in an attempt to reconstruct the soundscape of sixteenth-century Venice. The approach raises questions about how to undertake a multidisciplinary endeavor effectively. The historian in me looks for a sense of how the contending forces of family, institutions, and ideology worked themselves out in specific situations. Especially in the first section of the book, Fenlon's default explanation for most changes is "it was politics," which is hardly an answer at all, just a label. I recurrently looked for some understanding of the internal workings of power, so brilliantly excavated for the fifteenth century by Dennis Romano in The Likeness of Venice: A Life of Doge Francesco Foscari (2007) but published too late for Fenlon to consider.

Having once covered much the same territory myself in Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice (1981), I eagerly anticipated learning new information, new interpretations, and a new approach. Fenlon certainly provides readers with lots in information, some of it new, but he does not alter the picture of Venetian ceremonial life in a significant way. This reader had an abiding sense of déjà vu. Ceremonial studies have undergone a significant transformation over the past thirty years, and straightforward functionalism has become passé, but the functionalist approach still rules in this book. One example: in discussing the well-known "War of the Fists," bridge battles between two working-class factions, Fenlon asserts "one consequence of this ritualized violence was to cement a sense of local identity, based on a complex of geographical, devotional and occupational elements, even more firmly in place" (38). How does he know? Why does ritualized violence demonstrate social cohesion rather than its opposite?

What I most wanted to learn about was music and especially how to integrate it into history of Venetian ceremonies. This is, of course, where Fenlon has the most to contribute, and we do learn a good deal about music, but it seems a curious add-on to the otherwise event-driven narrative. Events happen. Ceremonies change. And then there was the music. Of course for the early periods little is known about music in Venice, and indeed the first substantial discussion of music does not appear until page 64, but the book never quite captures the Venetian soundscape. What did those six trombe d'argento blaring away during a ducal procession in Piazza San Marco sound like? What were the acoustic effects in the narrow alleys of Venice of the mournful litanies sung by the plague-afflicted? What was difference between reciting a prayer and singing psalms and litanies? What is missing is what the literary scholar Bruce R. Smith accomplished for Early Modern England in Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (1999). Less redundant historical information, more analysis, and more attention to the sounds of Venice would have made a marvelous book.

Copyright © 2008 The Renaissance Society...



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