- San Marco, Byzantium, and the Myths of Venice Edited by Henry Maguire and Robert S. Nelson
This is a complicated book, in which a complex of issues is dealt with in interlocking fashion. On the face of things, it is a set of individual essays by eight scholars consolidating their contributions to a colloquium held in Baltimore under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University and Dumbarton Oaks, under the title “From Enrico to Andrea Dandolo: Imitation, Appropriation, and Meaning at San Marco in Venice” (May 2007). All eight (including Maguire and Nelson) are active specialists, to one extent or another, in Venetian studies.
The Ducal Basilica of San Marco has been one of the most studied of Christian churches for generations. The landmark studies have long been the two grand [End Page 129] works of the Austrian scholar Otto Demus: The Church of San Marco in Venice: History, Architecture, Sculpture (Washington, DC, 1960), and The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice (4 vols., Chicago, 1984). It is not an exaggeration to say that this new book is the single most important one to deal with the great church—its qualities, its decoration, its surroundings, and its messages—since Demus’s massive volumes.
The key to this collection’s purpose is the word myths. Over the course of the Serene Republic’s history, many “myths of Venice” were generated, partly to convey at home and abroad the message of Venice’s supposed stability, internal harmony, the commitment of its citizens to the interests of the state beyond personal interests, the binding ideal of justice, and majesty of empire. The myths could also be embodied in traditional stories attached to individual decorations or appurtenances of the church. And, beyond the myths propagated by Venice’s image-making, there have been myths developed by observers and scholars of things Venetian.
Indeed, Liz James’s essay on “Mosaic Matters” definitively explodes Demus’s vague assumption that the glass tesserae that went into the basilica’s staggering mosaic programs, and the artists who executed them, were Byzantine in origins. For more than two decades, moreover, it has been known that the so-called Pilastri Acritani that stand outside the basilica’s south wall are not trophies from a Venetian conquest of the Genoese in Acre but booty from the church of Hagios Polyeuktos in Constantinople, as Nelson himself explicates. Debate still continues over just whom the so-called Tetrarch panels, mounted at the corner of the Treasury wall, really represent.
Each of the essays has a particular focus: Fabio Barry’s on the calculated decorative use of spolia; Michael Jacoff’s on the messages incorporated in the exterior façades; Thomas A. Dale’s on the “cultural hybridity” of art and decoration of which Venice was a center; Holger A. Klein’s on the deliberate imitations of Constantinople in Venice’s urban configuration; Maguire’s on a sculpture (the Aniketos Icon) in the south entrance (now the Zen chapel) and the patterns of relic display; and Debra Pincus’s on the unique design and decoration of the Baptistery.
But, in fact, all these scholars deal with constantly overlapping themes and materials, each contributing in individual terms to an overall understanding of how messages were expressed through visual means: messages about what elements make up a working political order and in what balances; messages about how Venice related itself to its once-patron, then-victim, Byzantium; messages about claimed divine authorization of its status, through its accumulation of sacred relics and prestige as a pilgrimage center, but above all through the symbolic figure of its patron saint, Mark the Evangelist. It is recognized throughout that there seems to have been no master plan for all this, no documented grand program set down. Yet, even if the achievement was cumulative rather than pre-conceived, these studies join to recognize two phases of decisive initiatives...