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Reviewed by:
  • The World in Venice: Print, the City and the Early Modern Identity
  • Sheila Das (bio)
Bronwen Wilson. The World in Venice: Print, the City and the Early Modern Identity University of Toronto Press. xvii, 408. $70.00

That Renaissance Venice is well known both as an important centre of print culture and as a republic that excelled in crafting and projecting its own self-image makes the city of the lagoon serve as a poignant example of how print and identity merged, both reflecting and informing each other. In a fascinating and well-written study, Bronwen Wilson investigates the mutually constitutive relationship of print and identity in Venice by examining the visual strategies of constructing a consciousness of place, society and individuals through the media of maps, costume books, event depiction, and printed portraits. Other kinds of image production, such as pageantry, painted portraits, tapestries, coins, legends, and histories, have gained serious scholarly attention in the last several decades. What makes Wilson's work noteworthy is her unusual focus on printed visual material. First of all, it provides an uncommon perspective through which to assess Venetian self-fashioning. And furthermore, owing to the relative rapidity of their creation and the ease of their distribution, printed images foster a dual psychological effect of patriotic consciousness, seeing and being seen – an effect that Wilson's reference to Lacan fleshes out nicely with the aid of modern theory.

The four chapters are all solidly researched, thoughtful and stimulating. For example, starting with the conflation of chorography and cartography of Jacopo de' Barbari's immense woodcut of Venice (1500), the combination of temporal and eternal existence, human and divine perspective, and natural and mythical origins emerges to show Venice, flanked by Lido and the terraferma, with many qualities consonant with the utopian myth of Venice: integration, stability, favour, and self-defence. Wilson interprets those within the framework of the woodcut's intended distribution in the dominion. Changes in map-making – including text, legends, procession scenes, and representations of the doges – are investigated in a sensitive way as to how they influence the conception of Venice as a metropole. Later, printed costume books are shown to classify the inhabitants according to profession and status, and Wilson turns fruitfully to modern theories of semiotics to underscore the demand for a true connection between the signified and signifier. Thus costume was used to differentiate among the [End Page 389] seemingly universal contour of the human form in order to effect modes of classification that parallel botanical identification. Then she proceeds to discuss how the meaning of singular events – specifically, the battle at Lepanto and procession of the dogaressa to the Palazzo Ducale – were used to assert splendour in Venetian identity, precisely when the city was losing its economic and political power. Lastly, facial features and race come to the fore through quick sketches and portraits of foreigners (Japanese, Turks, Indians), together with the burgeoning enterprise of mirror production in Venice that prompted establishing identity as learned through difference: the dawning awareness of unique physiognomies and colour of the Caucasian Venetian in contrast to the Other. Each segment demonstrates the particular complexities involved in each example of image-making through print. Perhaps because of this, the book remains a little disjointed, as the separate chapters do not present the overarching argument as forcefully as this reader would have liked. In the end, The World in Venice makes a welcome contribution, as a rigorous, engaging exploration of print media and self-awareness of the city before the world.

Sheila Das

Sheila Das, Department of Italian, University of Toronto



Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 389-390
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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