Myths of Venice: The Figuration of a State.
(Bettie Allison Rand Lectures in Art History.) Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xii + 188 pp. + 16 color pls. index. illus. bibl. $39.95. ISBN: 0-8078-2641-3.
David Rosand's subject is not so much myths of Venice as it is the Myth of Venice as we find this expressed in its magnificent art. The term "myth" is one calculated to cause discomfiture among historians, rightly alert to the discrepancies between the lofty ideals celebrated in political panegyric and the baser realities of human societies in action. It is not the least of Rosand's many virtues never to lose sight of the fact that the myths societies create for themselves constitute very powerful realities; and that the works of art celebrating these beliefs are tangible manifestations of cultural realities that the Venetians claimed equivalent to the honor of the city. (Equating culture with civic honor, also claimed by Lorenzo de' Medici for Florence, is a fundamental Renaissance idea.) And it is no accident that Titian or Veronese are more famous today than all the Doges of Venice, because the ethos of Venice as realized in their very achievement, whatever the subject matter of particular paintings, stil l lives, long after the Venetian empire, its merchants and navies, have melted into oblivion. The achievement of Venetian art needs no apologist, though Rosand writes very well about it. His concern, however, is with the myth of Venice as subject matter, and with the means for configuring the political ideals of the Serenissima in art. Rosand is an excellent and experienced guide, reliable and eminently readable, for whom the history of Venice together with its art is second nature.
In characterizing the fluid associations and complex interplay of meanings central to the idea of Venice (among them the Virgin and St. Mark, Wisdom, Justice, and Peace), Rosand coins the term "iconographic slippage" to characterize the ways in which attributes proper to one term tend to be subsumed into another. An example is the image of the lion, which taken alone stands for St. Mark, the city's patron, and so can also stand for Venice itself In the biblical book of Wisdom, Divine Wisdom is personified seated on the lion-throne of Solomon, and lions flanking a throne thus signify her. In Jacobello del Fiore's 1421 triptych for the judges of the Magistrato del Proprio, Justice appears with her familiar attributes of the sword and scales. But she is enthroned between two live lions, and so with perfect clarity assimilates into herself the concepts of Wisdom and Venice. Biblical exegesis equates Divine Wisdom and the Virgin, and Jacobello depicted the Archangel Gabriel with Madonna lilies and a scroll to the right of Justice (who is crowned like the Queen of Heaven), and gesturing in greeting (Ave). This inevitably evokes Venice's other patron, for the city had been founded on the feast of the Annunciation. To relate this is cumbersome, but in the image itself the concepts of Justice founded in Divine Wisdom, the Virgin, St. Mark, and of course Venice herself, are seamlessly joined and instantly apprehensible.
The book is in four chapters, devoted to the legendary birth of Venice, to the Peace of St. Mark, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the assimilation of the Olympian gods, each chapter skillfully elucidating central components that together define the Venetian myth. As the argument unfolds, we are given clear expositions of the most important public displays of Renaissance art in Venice, among them the sculptures decorating the Ducal Palace, the paintings by Veronese and Tintoretto (and others) in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Tintoretto's in the Sala dell'Anticollegio, Jacopo Sansovino's sculptures for the choir of San Marco, the Scala dei Giganti, and the Loggetta di San Marco, not to mention Bellini and Tintoretto's paintings for the Scuola di San Marco and Titian's Presentation of the Virgin for the Scuola Grande di Sta. Maria della Carita. Rosand's inherent scholarly good taste is impeccable throughout, and his ability to present complex and highly textured arguments in transparently lucid prose is enviable. I might add that the University of North Carolina Press is marketing his book for adoption in undergraduate courses, and I can imagine no better or more enjoyable an introduction to Venice and its art.
This is far from saying that Rosand's book is only for undergraduates. As I said at the outset, it is a work of methodological sophistication. On this point I will end with one small demurral. Rosand's concept of "iconographical slippage" seems to me misleading for implying that meaning in the arts is normally stable, or should be. As his own irrefutable exegeses make clear, images have the ability to change in coloring in different contexts, to be inflected by other images even while retaining expressive communicability and clarity. This is not a slippage in meaning, but rather amplification, making use of what the rhetoricians called figurative speech, allegorical and metonymical in its forms. Veronese's personified Venice is an allegorical figure, the scepter she holds a meronym for her sovereignty and authority, just as the lion is a metonym for St. Mark and for Venice. Altobello's allegory of Justice presents her as a synecdoche for the encompassing concept of Divine Wisdom that is the source for Venice' s laws. Venice is Venus by paronomasia, and Venus, whose beauty was born of the sea, is also a metaphor for Venice. None of this is "iconographic slippage," but rather finely calculated allusiveness and expansion of meaning, and it is the foundation for the great rhetorical cycles painted in Rome and Paris in the centuries to come.