The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Baroque Venice

  • Will DaddarioEmail author
Living reference work entry



Baroque Venice, most typically, refers to a span of time between c.1600 and c.1750 in which literary, pictorial, theatrical, religious, and governmental activity reached a zenith of creativity. In addition to this definition, however, we should also think of the Baroque as the superlative of the excessive and the bizarre, specifically as it relates to the conception Venice had of itself between 1500 and its fall in 1797.


Apart, the words “Baroque” and “Venice” each have an undeniable allure. Baroque, sometimes figured as a time period, at other times a style, names vast collections of artworks of exceeding complexity and grandeur designed to pack an affective wallop in the heart, mind, and spirit of spectators. Venice, Europe’s oldest independent Republic whose life span stretched nearly a millennium from the eighth to the end of the eighteenth centuries, boggles the senses of its visitors with its canals and circuitous walking paths that lead past illustrious estates and warrens of mercantile goods. This city provoked astonishment in famous individuals – from Goethe to Oscar Wilde – and acted as home to many artisans, whores, and actors whose lives may never achieve visibility in the archives but nonetheless shaped the on-the-ground experience of this theatrical city for so many years. Together, the phrase “Baroque Venice” launches us into an exploration of art history, cultural production, religious ideology, political theology, civic ritual, governmental history, and theatrical performances of the quotidian. Baroque Venice is an event unto itself, and, as such, it requires that researchers comport themselves to complexity of the event at hand.

There are at least two ways that one can begin to understand the phenomenon summoned by the term “Baroque Venice.” The first, which draws from empirical and taxonomical methodologies, (as seen, for example, in Mancini et al. 1995) treats Baroque Venice as the repository of the architectural, painterly, and scenographic art objects that each produces a specific barrage of theatrical effects. The ornate façades of Venice’s many churches, the canvases of Tiziano Vecelli (aka Titian, 1488–1576) and Jacopo Robusti (aka Tintoretto, 1519–1594), and the interior designs of theaters such as I Teatro Michiel and Tron, all demonstrate these effects, which cultural art historian John Rupert Martin also refers to as the aim of Baroque art: “to break down the barrier between the work of art and the real world: their method is to conceive of the subject represented as existing in a space coextensive with that of the observer” (Martin 1977: 155). Venice, as the home to these works of art, becomes the scene of cultural production that makes possible this theatrical turn of visual spectacle. In particular, and in contradistinction to the frequent association between Baroque art and superficial trickery or banal ostentation, the cultural milieu sustained by the Venetian Republic for several centuries (indeed, until its downfall to Napoleon in 1797) produced artworks that acted upon their spectators with (usually) one of two explicit purposes. Either Baroque Venetian art sought to impress upon its viewers the splendor of the Republic itself, or else it participated in the broader European event of evangelizing the message of Roman/Papal Christianity in order to shepherd the souls of stray sheep back inside the flock during the rise of Protestantism. Of course, many of the artworks accomplished both of these goals at the same time, though the point remains the same: “The purpose of [Baroque] illusionism was not merely to astonish but to persuade, and, especially in the case of devotional subjects, to assist the viewer to lift his mind from the transitory things of this world to the eternal things of the spirit” (Martin 1977: 170). Whether the spirit went on to pay devotion to Christianity or to Venice itself was a matter left to the spectator, but he or she would have to return to the great floating city on the lagoon in order to see many of the most persuasive of Baroque art masterpieces. Thus, “Baroque Venice” names both the collection of artworks capable of arousing such spiritual flights and also the urban location that inspired artists to make those works.

The second way to understand “Baroque Venice” leads to a more fanciful viewpoint, one that unfolds from within the wild theatricality of the artistic milieu described above and, for that reason, roots itself in semi-fictional imaginings rather than empirical data. This Baroque Venice belongs to the family of urban locations that Italo Calvino would name invisible cities. In the 1972 novel of the same name, Marco Polo, a Venetian, tells tale of one invisible city after another to Kublai Khan. Each story, more fantastical than the one that came before, constructs a model of the paradox central to all historiographical operations: the materiality, intelligibility, and therefore reality of certain cities becomes, over time, inseparable from the stories people tell about those cities. Telling of the city Zenobia, for example, Polo concludes that there are only two types of cities: “those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it” (Calvino 1974: 35). After shaping this same thought in a number of different ways and after conjuring several of these invisible cities for the aural and imaginative pleasure of the great Khan, the emperor remarks that one city has been left out, the city of Polo’s own residence. But to this comment, Polo only smiles: “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?” And then Calvino concludes, “The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’ And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice’” (86). Baroque Venice is surely the origin of all invisible cities, a city whose substantiality and historical materiality emerges from a never-ending oscillation between, on the one hand, the modes of cultural production that birth the city’s eye-popping artistic offerings and, on the other hand, the words produced by historians who later attempt to resurrect the city’s landscapes through archival traces.

This Baroque Venice roots itself in the story that the city tells itself about itself, as well as the stories told of its many treasures by the individuals who came from far and wide to experience its grandeur. Moving from the purely fictional presentation of Venice through Calvino’s novel to actual cartographical presentation of the same city in the year 1500, another instance of this Baroque Venice shows itself in the massive map, or view, produced of the city by Jacopo de’ Barbari. As Juergen Schulz describes it, “it is one of the first large bird’s-eye views known to have been published in woodcut, and perhaps the first ever made of Venice” (Schulz 1978: 425). Despite its age, historians have relied upon the exquisite detail of the map’s alleys, canals, buildings, piazze, and gardens to identify the exact location of theaters and nobles’ residences long since lost to fires and urban renewal. And yet, as Schulz and others have explained, the detail of the map is but another flight of fancy, its bird’s-eye view a fiction of the first order: “The fact is that the woodcut’s topography, like its geography, is approximate rather than exact. It is so astonishingly and brilliantly detailed that one is apt to accept it unquestioningly as a record of fact, but such confidence is misplaced” (439). The map, it seems, belonged to a family of similarly exquisite maps created in the era to serve didactic and ideological purposes.

Stepping back from the details of houses and churches and boats depicted in the map, the larger ideological picture comes into view. The shape of Venice, as imagined from above, bears a striking resemblance to the common dolphin that was known to populate the waters in and around Venice and indeed all of the Mediterranean. This shape, functioning as a kind of magical sigil capable of manifesting certain powers and virtues, carried with it great mythological importance from the classical era through the eighteenth century. As Deborah Howard’s research shows, “the delphinic allusion bestowed on Venice the protection of Neptune and Mercury, as well as the identity of her alter-ego, Venus. [...] it also endowed her with associations of speed, fortune, musical harmony and ultimately the Christian resurrection of the soul” (Howard 1997: 109). Perhaps more astonishing than the fact that Barbari toiled away to create one of the most breathtaking maps of the early modern era in such a way as to cement the semblance of Venice’s delphinic essence is the fact that from 1500 onward civil engineers and architects worked to ensure that Venice would grow into its Dolphin form. “[S]ince [Venice’s] site was almost entirely man-made by the laborious process of land reclamation and piling, its whole form could be artificially created, and adjusted through time. It is intriguing to remember that the major extension to the city in the 16th century along the northern fringes of the city served to enhance the stream-lined profile of the dolphin’s back” (109). Keeping this in mind, a less-common understanding of Baroque Venice begins to take shape as (1) an invisible city (despite or perhaps because of its incredible trove of visually stunning artworks) and (2) a mythological dolphin.

To this definition, one must add that the soul of Baroque Venice drew its mobility from a ceaseless display of theatrical procession and ritual. In fact, Venice nurtured an understanding of the city as not only home to a great many theaters and theatrical offerings but as itself a great theater of the world. Barbari’s map draws our attention to the late-fifteenth-century roots of this theatrical identity through its emphasis on the open space of Piazza San Marco. Rather than building the perspectival center point of the map around a particular building, such as the political seat of power in the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), Barbari emphasized the largest of the city’s public squares, which doubled as a staging ground for its largest festivals, public executions, and political gatherings. Of the many resources that investigate the function of Venice’s civic ritual, Edward Muir’s research paints some of the most vivid scenes. “The fundamental problem of the historians of Venice,” writes Muir, “has been to separate outward appearance from reality, to uncover from the veneer of propaganda and mythology the actual social and political structure of the city” (Muir 1981: 13). What he goes on to claim, however, is that such a separation is not necessary precisely because the actual social structure of the city built itself upon a foundation of theatrical propaganda. Throughout the year, processions of nobles and crowds of commoners would cover every centimeter of Venice’s pavement and waterways in order to reaffirm the Republic’s unique identity as an independent political space within the heavily colonized geography of the Italian peninsula. Of all the theater spaces on which political actors would take their marks and play their parts, that of the Piazza San Marco stood out to residents and visitors alike as the epicenter of this civic theatrical activity.

The more fanciful, but not for that reason less true, understandings of Baroque Venice lead from Invisible City to magical Dolphin and to Teatro Politico and then off in other directions. There are two more worth charting briefly in this entry. The penultimate road leads through the maze of literary publications that flooded the city’s streets starting in the 1490s. In her discussion of Barbari’s dolphin map, Howard touches briefly on the chief figure of this scene, Aldus Manutius, whose Aldine Press became famous for its publication of the Ancient Greek and Latin texts that would feed centuries of Humanist thought. Howard mentions that Manutius, as a nonnative Venetian, sought to secure his identity as a Venetian publisher through his adopted trademark, an anchor with a dolphin entwined around it (Howard 1997: 108). With his identity firmly in place and publisher’s imprint circulating widely by the first years of the sixteenth century, Manutius became a key player in explosion of literary works that would put Venice, and its nearby landholding Padua (wherein resided the great University), on the map as the capital of intellectual output. Paul F. Grendler’s work (1969, 1981) covers the many collisions between this output and the conservative religious influences that would prefer the Venetian public to be less literate and more receptive to the handed-down authority of the Papacy. The interplay between the discipline of the Counter-Reformation and the inventiveness of the Venetian literati churned up the soil of the Republic’s cultural environment and led, ultimately, to the production of many of the literary, theatrical, and visual works that empirical historians would eventually identify as Baroque with the help of rubrics like that of Martin cited at the start of this entry. The literary sense of Baroque Venice briefly charted in this paragraph does not claim that certain of those works count as “Baroque,” but, rather, that the cultural tensions produced by the publication of classical texts, the translations of those texts into Florentine and local Venetian dialects, and the access to those works made possible by their relatively inexpensive printing methods fostered the inner intellectual movement crucial to sustaining a Baroque spirit.

Along these same lines, the argument I make in Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy (Daddario 2017) urges us today to consider “the Baroque” as a social phenomenon, one produced by the tensions between governmental discipline and artistic excess that showed themselves throughout the Venetian Republic from the late fifteenth century until the Republic’s demise. Moving beyond literature (poems, novels, and encomiums of the city) and theater (play scripts and theatrical musings embedded in various scholarly texts) to the broader realm of performance, I develop a sense of these Baroque tensions through the analysis of one particular clash, that of the Jesuit order and the political performer born Angelo Beolco (1502–1542) but known throughout the land as Ruzzante. The former, though explicitly allied to the Counter-Reformation forces of the Pope, utilized highly theatrical language and social scenography to divert souls away from the powerful influence of Lutheranism and profane popular entertainments. The latter, though a leader for the peasants of Padua and drawing from the profane theatrical material of the vibrant Venetian scene, relied on an almost ascetic practice of truth-telling to blur the boundary between fictional stage scenarios and authentic Venetian political happenings. Thus, while the Jesuits would seems at first to embody the disciplined side of the book’s dialectic and Ruzzante the side of excess, both the Jesuits and Ruzzante express how the dialectic of discipline and excess abounded in so many social practices, from public religious worship to the staging of theatrical fare. Through the study, Baroque Venice becomes part and parcel of the performance of this dialectical tension, whether this performance was conscious or unconscious on the part of the primary actor-agent.

Baroque Venice, ultimately, comes into view through these two vastly different perspectives. On the one hand, it rises from the past as the wealth of artworks capable of destabilizing the subject/object relationship found in many fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century artworks housed in the Venice’s many ornate palaces, churches, and private homes; on the other hand, Baroque Venice is a mosaic image assembled from multiple, varied historical situations that summon their luminosity from the rich artistic and intellectual output of novelists, religious representatives, politicians, activists, literary circles, printing technology, mythological stories of self, and cartographic portrayals, as well as the tensions that arise when any one of those situations erupts in conflict. To chart the former, one needs to dive into the cavernous archives that protect the historical material that has survived from Venice’s founding. To chart the latter, one needs to scrutinize each individual historical shard so as to find the image of the Baroque world it contains within itself. This particular image of mosaics and shards of history comes from Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Benjamin 2003, originally published 1925) and can serve well the person seeking a view of Baroque Venice from this imaginative perspective. At the end of the day, both perspectives on Venice meet up and resolve into the paradox limned so artfully in Calvino’s novel:

Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.

‘On the day when I know all the emblems,’ he asked Macro, ‘shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?’

And the Venetian answered: ‘Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.’ (Calvino 1974: 22–23)

In other words, both the story you eventually tell of this topic and your identity itself will become part of the phenomenon known as Baroque Venice.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarAshevilleUSA